Thursday, May 30, 2024

Lockdown protests erupt after deadly fire in China

(BBC News) Videos shared on social media in China have appeared to show fresh protests against COVID restrictions, after an apartment block fire killed 10 people.

People in Urumqi are seen confronting officials, breaking down a barrier, and shouting “end the COVID lockdown.”

Infections have hit new highs in China despite a rigid zero-COVID policy.

Authorities in Urumqi have now promised to phase out restrictions — though they deny that these stopped people escaping Thursday’s fire.

Restrictions have been in place Urumqi, capital of the western Xinjiang region, since early August.

The BBC was told by one resident in the aftermath of the incident that people living in the fire-hit compound had been largely prevented from leaving their homes.

That has been disputed by Chinese state media. However, Urumqi authorities did issue an unusual apology late on Friday — vowing to punish anyone who had deserted their duty.

Footage shared on Friday night showed residents, many of them in facemasks, gathering after dark on the city streets.

They were seen chanting, pumping their firsts, and arguing with officials. The location was verified by the Reuters news agency.

One demonstrator shouts through a megaphone, and in another clip, a crowd breaks through a barrier policed by city workers wearing protective gear.

Live streams monitored by the BBC on Friday night also appeared to show protesters gathered on the steps of a city government building.

The Internet is heavily censored in China, and references to the Urumqi protests had largely been taken down by Saturday morning.

Local media said Thursday’s blaze at the Urumqi apartment block — which injured another nine people — appeared to have been caused by a fault with an electrical extension.

Online posts have suggested that firefighting efforts were hindered by COVID restrictions.

This has been denied by city officials, who sought to blame parked vehicles for stopping firefighters’ access to the burning building.

In a press conference on Saturday morning, they announced a phased easing of lockdown conditions in parts of Urumqi deemed low-risk.

They did not refer to the demonstrations, but said that COVID cases in the community had been largely cleared, and that “order” would be restored to the lives of the city’s residents.

Large-scale, disruptive protests are rare in China, although there has been mounting public dissent aimed at Beijing’s zero-COVID strategy.

Other protests were reported in cities including Xi’an, Chongqing, and Nanjing on Saturday. Many of them were reported at universities.

Snap lockdowns have caused anger across the country – and COVID restrictions more broadly have trigged recent violent protests from Zhengzhou to Guangzhou.

Despite the stringent measures, China’s case numbers this week hit all-time records since the pandemic began.

The Xinjiang region is home to many Uyghurs, against whom the Chinese government has been accused of committing numerous human rights abuses — something it denies.

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