Protests erupt in Xinjiang and Beijing after deadly fire

Nov 26 (Reuters) – Public anger in China over the extension of a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown erupted in rare protests in China’s far western Xinjiang region and the country’s capital Beijing, as infections across the country hit a new record.

Crowds took to the streets Friday night in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi chanting “End of lockdown!” and waving fists in the air after a deadly fire on Thursday sparked anger over their prolonged COVID-19 lockdown, according to videos shared on Chinese social media on Friday night.

Videos showed people in a square singing China’s national anthem with its lyrics “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves!” while others shouted to be freed from lockdowns.

Reuters confirmed the footage was released from Urumqi, where many of its 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barring them from leaving their homes for up to 100 days.

In the capital Beijing, 2,700 km (1,678 miles) away, some residents under lockdown staged small-scale protests or clashed with local officials over the restrictions on movement imposed on them, with some successfully pressuring them to lift them early.

A crucial spark for public anger was a high-rise fire in Urumqi that killed 10 on Thursday night, the case of which went viral on social media as many netizens speculated that residents were unable to escape in time because the building was partially locked down.

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Urumqi officials abruptly held a press conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny that the COVID measures had prevented the escape and rescue, but netizens continued to question the official narrative.

“The fire in Urumqi has upset everyone in the country,” said Sean Li, a resident of Beijing.

A planned lockdown of his Berlin Ayue compound was called off on Friday after residents protested to their local leader and convinced him to call it off, a negotiation that was captured on video posted on social media.

Residents became aware of the plan after seeing workers erecting barriers at their gates. “This tragedy could have happened to any of us,” he said.

By Saturday night, at least ten other complexes had lifted the lockdown ahead of the announced end date after residents complained, according to Reuters data from residents’ social media posts.

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A separate video shared with Reuters showed Beijing residents in an unidentified part of the city marching around an outdoor parking lot on Saturday, chanting “End of the lockdown.”

The government in Beijing did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

ASKING DIFFICULT QUESTIONS

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said comments by authorities that residents of the Urumqi building were able to climb down and thus escape were likely to be perceived as victim-blaming and further fueled public anger.

“In the first two years of COVID, people trusted the government to make the best decisions to protect them from the virus. Now people are increasingly asking hard questions and being cautious about following orders,” Yang said.

Xinjiang is home to 10 million Uighurs. Human rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in internment camps. China categorically rejects such claims.

China is defending President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-tolerance policy against COVID as life-saving and necessary to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. Officials have vowed to press ahead with it despite growing public backlash and mounting damage to the world’s second-largest economy.

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China said on Friday it would cut the amount of money banks must hold as reserves for the second time this year, freeing up liquidity to support a faltering economy.

The next few weeks could be China’s worst since the early weeks of the pandemic for both the economy and the health system, Mark Williams of Capital Economics said in a note this week, as efforts to contain the current outbreak will require further localized lockdowns in many cities, which will further suppress economic activity.

The country recorded 34,909 daily local cases on Friday, low by global standards but a third record in a row, as infections spread across multiple cities, prompting widespread lockdowns and other restrictions on movement and business.

Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial center, which underwent a two-month lockdown earlier this year, tightened testing requirements on Saturday to enter cultural sites such as museums and libraries, requiring people to present a negative COVID test taken within at 48 hours, down from 72 hours earlier.

Reporting by Yu Lun Tian; Editing by William Mallard, Brenda Go and Louise Havens

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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