Deadly fire in Xinjiang prompts protests across China over strict COVID lockdowns

Authorities are told to 'strictly crack down on illegal and criminal acts' opposing the zero-COVID policy.
By Rita Cheng for RFA Mandarin and Shohret Hoshur for RFA Uyghur
Deadly fire in Xinjiang prompts protests across China over strict COVID lockdowns A person holds a candle, as people gather for a vigil and hold white sheets of paper in protest of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, during a commemoration of the victims of a fire in Urumqi, as outbreaks of the coronavirus disease continue in Beijing, China, November 27, 2022.
REUTERS/Thomas Peter

UPDATED AT 9:31 A.M. EST ON 11-27-2022

Angry protests raged overnight in the capital of China’s western Xinjiang region and spread to other cities in China Saturday, as crowds blamed tight COVID-19 lockdown measures for delaying a response to a deadly apartment fire, prompting the government to promise to ease the restrictions gradually while cracking down on opposition to state policies, according to local sources and media reports.

The protests in Urumqi–which also erupted in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities–were triggered by a fire Thursday night in a residential building in Urumqi’s Jixiangyuan district that killed at least 10 people, but also reflected deepening frustration at the country's uncompromising zero-COVID restrictions, policies closely associated with President and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.

Citizen videos that circulated on the Internet showed screaming residents of the burning apartment demanding authorities open exits they said were closed under strict COVID-19 restrictions that have been in place for more than 100 days and have caused widespread hardship. 

People gather on a street in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, where protests against China's zero-Covid policy took place the night before following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)
People gather on a street in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, where protests against China's zero-Covid policy took place the night before following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)

RFA Uyghur called police stations near the site of the fire in Urumqi and was given varying death tolls from the blaze.

"Nine burned to death. More than a dozen died of suffocation, with a total is around 26," said a police official at Ittipaq (In Chinese, Tuanjie) Road station.

"The number of deaths may be more than 40," said a police officer at Janubiy (Xinhua) Road police station. "I was told there were many with heavy injuries in the hospital. We don’t have time to count the number of deaths."

'Down with the party!'

Eva Rammeloo, the China correspondent for the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw, tweeted videos from protests on Shanghai's Urumqi Avenue on Saturday night in which crowds could be seen and heard chanting "Down with the party! Down with Xi Jinping! Free Xinjiang!"

Police divided the crowd into two parts and arrested several people, Rammeloo wrote.

Other videos showed coordinated chants, with one protester yelling, "Chinese Communist Party!" and the others shouting, "Step down!" in response.

Police and guards arrest a man during some clashes in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, where protests against China's zero-Covid policy took place the night before following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP)

Reuters news agency reported that videos verified as taken in Urumqi Friday night showed fist-pumping crowds chanting, “End the lockdown!” while others were singing China’s national anthem with its lyric, “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves!”

AFP said it had verified videos showing hundreds of people gathered outside the Urumqi city government offices during the night, chanting: “Lift lockdowns!” while others marched chanted east of the city and berated authorities wearing white protective suits.

According to the residents, fire trucks that rushed to the scene were prevented from reaching the fire by parked cars and metal fences preventing people from coming out of their buildings and neighborhoods as part of the COVID-19 blockade, allowing the fire to burn for nearly three hours before it was extinguished.

Firemen didn’t clear the obstructions and tried to spray water on the building from a distance, but the hoses could not reach floors 14-19 of the 21 story building, where the fire was burning, sources told RFA Uyghur.

According to posts on China's Twitter-like Weibo, similar demonstrations against COVID-19 policies were staged in other parts of Xinjiang, including Korla and the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture.

Han Chinese protesting

Most of the protesters visible in the Urumqi protest videos were not Uyghurs but majority Han Chinese.

This was because "Han Chinese people know they will not be punished if they speak against the lockdown," the Associated Press quoted an unnamed Uyghur woman as saying.

"Uyghurs are different. If we dare say such things, we will be taken to prison or to the camps," the women told the AP, declining to be identified to protect her family.

Police officers stand behind barricades and cordon at the site where a protest against COVID-19 curbs took place the night before, following the deadly Urumqi fire, in Shanghai, China November 27, 2022. REUTERS/Josh Horwitz

In response to the Friday night protests, the Communist Party Standing Committee of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region convened a meeting Saturday headed by party secretary Ma Xingrui and issued a statement declaring success in fighting the epidemic and calling for a crackdown on opposition to COVID policies.

"Urumqi's epidemic prevention and control work has achieved major phased results, and the social situation has basically been cleared. At the same time, the risk of the epidemic has not been completely eliminated, and the chain of transmission has not been completely blocked, and a slight slack will cause a rebound," said the statement.

"It is necessary to do a solid job in maintaining stability during the epidemic prevention period, strictly crack down on illegal and criminal acts such as spreading rumors, inciting troubles, and violently resisting epidemic prevention and control measures in accordance with laws and regulations, and resolutely maintain the order of epidemic prevention and control," the statement added.

Three-stage easing

The Urumqi city government held a news conference early Saturday and announced a three-stage easing of the lockdown in the city, home to 4.7 million people and subject to the longest and harshest lockdowns, imposed under the Chinese Communist Party’s unpopular zero-COVID policy.

Sui Rong, Urumqi’s Minister of Propaganda, said easing would begin in low-risk areas to allow residents to leave their apartments and go downstairs. But residents would still be required to show proof of their reason to leave their buildings and have to maintain social distance, wear masks and avoid gathering in groups, local media quoted Sui as saying.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV said the fire was caused by a board of electric sockets in the bedroom of one of the apartments.

CCTV said Urumqi Mayor Maimaitiming Kade had issued a rare formal apology for the blaze at Saturday’s briefing.

But Kade rejected assertions by residents and commenters on social media that COVID-19 strictures had contributed to the tragedy, saying the doors of the burning building were not locked.

Urumqi fire chief Li Wensheng blamed haphazard parking by private cars for impeding firetruck’s access to the blaze, CCTV reported.

Students take part in a protest against COVID-19 curbs at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China seen in this still image taken from a video released November 27, 2022 and obtained by REUTERS.

Far away from Xinjiang in the eastern city of Nanjing, citizen videos seen by RFA Mandarin showed students gathering at the Nanjing Institute of Communication to mourn and call attention to victims of the fire and bereaved families.

Another video shows a man who appeared to be a school official holding a loudspeaker and telling the students, "You will pay for everything you have done today.”

The threat angered the students, who shouted back: "You have to pay the price too," and "This country is paying the price.”

RFA was unable to verify the videos immediately, but similar clips were shared showing similar gatherings in Shanghai and in western Sichuan province.

Total disregard for Ughurs' suffering’

The 12 million Uyghurs have been subject to harsh government campaigns, including a mass incarceration program that affected as many as 1.8 million people, that China says are necessary to fight extremism and terrorism.

The United States and the parliaments of some Western countries declared China’s repression of the Uyghurs, including arbitrary detainment and forced labor, amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity. In late August, the United Nations human rights chief issued a report on conditions in Xinjiang and concluded that the repression “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

People protest against COVID-19 curbs following the deadly Urumqi fire, at Communication University of China in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China in this still image obtained by REUTERS from a video released November 26, 2022.

 The World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy group based in Germany, condemned the authorities’ response in a statement that also provided details of Thursday’s deadly fire and casualties.

“Since August, Uyghurs in East Turkistan have endured these lockdowns without access to food or medical care. Social media accounts have been flooded with videos of people dying due to complete neglect from the authorities, and total disregard for Uyghur’s suffering,” it said, using the Uyghurs preferred name for Xinjiang.

Among those who died were a family of three: the mother, Qemernisahan Abdurahman, and her children, Nehdiye and Imran. The father, Eli Memetniyaz, and their older son, Eliyas Eli, are both serving 12 and 10 years prison sentences, respectively, the statement said.

“The Uyghur community is extremely distressed after hearing the horrific news of numerous families losing their lives in the fire,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress. 

“The fact is that the Chinese government has absolutely no mercy and the local authorities are completely ignoring the needs and demands of the Uyghur people, therefore they have not promptly acted to extinguish the blaze,” he said.

China's major cities, led by Chongqing and Guangzhou, are battling rising outbreaks, as are many provinces.

China's National Health Commission said on Saturday it had recorded reported 35,183 new COVID-19 infections on the previous day,
compared with 32,943 new cases a day earlier.

Written by Paul Eckert.

UPDATES with estimates of the fire death toll given by police in Urumqi, new images of protests.


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