Deadly fire in Xinjiang stokes anger over China’s zero-Covid policy

A deadly fire in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region has sparked an outburst over the country’s zero-Covid policy, as Beijing battles growing public fatigue over its tough approach to containing the coronavirus.

Ten people were killed and nine injured when the fire ripped through an apartment building in the regional capital, Ürümqi, on Thursday evening, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Online posts circulating on both Chinese and foreign social media platforms since Friday have claimed that lengthy Covid lockdowns in the city have hampered rescue attempts.

Some videos appeared to show crowds taking to the streets of Ürümqi to protest the measures.

The action comes amid rising public frustration at the government’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid, and follows sporadic protests in other cities.

China is the latest major economy to commit to a zero-Covid strategy, with authorities using rapid lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing to wipe out new outbreaks as they emerge.

Footage partially verified by AFP shows hundreds of people gathering outside Urumqi Municipality offices at night and chanting “Unlock lockdowns!”

In another clip, dozens of people can be seen marching through an east-side neighborhood shouting the same slogan before confronting a line of officers in hazmat and angrily rebuking security guards.

AFP journalists were able to verify the videos by geolocating local landmarks, but were unable to pinpoint exactly when the protests took place.

A wave of anger simmered on social media platform Weibo on Friday over claims that parked electric vehicles left without power during extended lockdowns were preventing fire engines from navigating a narrow road to the burning building.

“I’m also the one who throws myself off the roof, gets trapped in an overturned (quarantine) bus, and breaks out of isolation at the Foxconn factory,” read one comment, citing several recent incidents that the be attributed to zero Covid strictures.

Chinese authorities are censoring online content deemed politically sensitive and appeared to have deleted many posts and hashtags related to the fire by Saturday morning.

Urumqi police said in a Friday post on Weibo that they had arrested a woman surnamed Su for “spreading rumors online” about the death toll from the blaze.

– Rare Apology –

An initial investigation found the fire was caused by a power strip in the family bedroom in one of the apartments, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Rescue attempts were complicated by “a lack of parking and a large number of private vehicles parked on either side” of a narrow road to the building, the city’s fire and rescue chief Li Wensheng told reporters late Friday, CCTV said.

The mayor of Urumqi, Maimaitiming Kade, issued a rare apology for the fire, according to the broadcaster.

But officials also fought back some of the online allegations, denying that residents’ doors had been clamped with iron wires.

Covid controls have confined some communities in Urumqi – a city of four million people – to their homes for weeks.

But after the protests, officials said on Saturday the city had “essentially reduced social transmissions to zero” and would “gradually and orderly restore normal living arrangements for residents in low-risk areas.”

Pandemic fatigue has risen in China, with violent protests erupting in recent days at a huge Covid-hit factory in downtown Zhengzhou over a dispute over wages and working conditions.

China recorded 34,909 new domestic infections as of Saturday, the vast majority of which were asymptomatic, according to the National Health Commission.