Ng Han Guan/AP
TAIPEI, Taiwan — Authorities in China’s western Xinjiang region opened several residential areas in the capital Urumqi on Saturday after residents staged unusual late-night protests against The city’s draconian “no COVID” order closing order lasted for more than three months.
The public display of defiance was fueled by anger towards Apartment fire kills 10 peopleaccording to the official death toll, as it took first responders three hours to put out the blaze — a delay many attributed to the impediment of anti-virus measures.
The protests, as well as public anger online, are the latest signs of growing frustration with China’s aggressive approach to controlling COVID-19. It is the only major country in the world that is still fighting the pandemic through mass testing and lockdowns.
During Xinjiang’s lockdown, several residents elsewhere in the city were locked in chains, including one who spoke to the Associated Press, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal. . Many in Urumqi believe such violent tactics may have prevented residents from escaping during Friday’s fire, and the official death toll is a low number.
Officials denied the allegations, saying there were no barriers in the building and residents were allowed to leave. Anger flared up after Urumqi city officials held a news conference about the fire, in which they appeared to blame the deaths on residents of the apartment tower.
“Some residents’ ability to save themselves is too weak,” said Li Wensheng, head of the Urumqi fire department.
People in Urumqi mostly march peacefully in puffy winter coats on the cold winter night.
Videos of the protests featured people holding Chinese flags and shouting “Open, open.” They spread quickly on Chinese social networks despite strict censorship. In some scenes, people shouted and jostled rows of men wearing white full-body protective suits worn by local government employees and pandemic prevention volunteers, according to the videos.
By Saturday, most had been deleted by censors. The Associated Press could not independently verify all the videos, but two Urumqi residents who declined to be named for fear of reprisals said large-scale protests occurred Friday night. One of them said he had friends involved.
The AP has pinpointed the location of two of the videos of protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, police wearing masks and hospital gowns confront screaming protesters. In another case, a protester was speaking to a crowd about their demands. It is not clear how widespread the protests have been.
In a video that the AP could not independently verify, Urumqi’s top official, Yang Fasen, told angry protesters he would open up low-risk areas of the city the next morning.
That promise came true the next day, when the Urumqi government announced that residents in low-risk areas would be allowed to move around freely in their vicinity. However, many other neighborhoods remain locked down.
Ng Han Guan/AP
Officials also gleefully announced Saturday that they have essentially achieved a “COVID-free society,” meaning there is no more community transmission and new infections have only been detected in people who have already been infected. health monitoring, such as those in concentrated isolation facilities.
Social media users greeted the news with skepticism and irony. “Only China can achieve this speed,” wrote one Weibo user.
On the Chinese social network, where trending topics are manipulated by censors, the “no COVID” message is the number one trending hashtag on both Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, and Douyin, its version Chinese Tiktok. The apartment fires and protests have become lightning rods for public anger, as millions of posts were shared questioning China’s pandemic control measures or mocking propaganda. rigid and harsh censorship control of the country.
The public has turned away from China’s COVID-free policy
The outburst of criticism marked a major turning point in public opinion. From the very beginning of the pandemic, China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 has been praised by its own people for reducing the number of deaths at a time when other countries are suffering from severe waves. devastating waves of infection. Chinese leader Xi Jinping offered this approach as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system over the West and especially the US, which has politicized the use of masks and difficult to issue a blockade order on a large scale.
However, support for “no COVID” has dried up in recent months, as the tragedies have sparked public outrage. Last week, the city government of Zhengzhou, Henan province, central China apologized for the death of a 4-month-old baby. She died after receiving delayed medical care while suffering from vomiting and diarrhea during isolation at a hotel in Zhengzhou.
The government has doubled down on its policy even as it eases some measures, such as shortening the quarantine period. The central government has repeatedly said that it will stick to “no COVID”.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, health authorities reported 2,454 new cases of COVID-19 in the past 15 hours on Saturday. Much of the city is also under lockdown.
In many residential areas in Beijing’s northeast suburbs, residents rallied to protest measures by local governments and unelected residents’ associations to lock gates and force neighbors into the center. quarantine center.
Police responded but no violence is known to have occurred. In the community of Yutianxia on Saturday, an hour-long confrontation between police, residents and the Communist Party’s neighborhood resulted in an agreement allowing neighbors of three people who tested positive to be tested. quarantine at home instead of being taken to a government facility.
Many people in Urumqi have been under lockdown since August, more than three months. They are not allowed to leave their homes, confined to apartments in high-rise towers. On Friday, the city reported 220 new cases, the majority of which were asymptomatic.
An unnamed Uighur woman said she had been in her apartment since August 8 and was not even allowed to open the window. On Friday, residents of her neighborhood defied orders, opening windows and shouting protest. She joined.
“No more blockade! No more blockade!” they shouted.