TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Protests against China’s restrictive COVID-19 measures appeared to rock in a number of cities Saturday night, in displays of public defiance stoked by anger over a deadly fire in the western region of Xinjiang.
Many of the protests could not be immediately confirmed, but in Shanghai, police used pepper spray to stop about 300 protesters who gathered on Urumqi Middle Road at midnight, bringing flowers, candles and banners reading “Urumqi, November 24, those who died rest in peace” to commemorate Anniversary of the ten deaths caused by fire In a residential building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
One protester who gave only his last name, Gao, said one of his friends was beaten by the police, and two of his friends were pepper sprayed. He said the police stomped on his feet as he tried to stop them from taking his friend away. He lost his shoes in the process, and left the demonstration barefoot.
Zhao says the protesters chanted slogans such as “Xi Jinping, step down, Communist Party, step down”, “Open Xinjiang, unleash China”, “Don’t want PCR tests, want freedom” and “Freedom of the press”.
About 100 policemen stood in line, Zhao said, preventing some protesters from gathering or leaving, and buses with more policemen arrived later.
Another protester, who gave only his last name as Shaw, said there was a larger crowd than thousands of protesters, but that police stood in the way and allowed protesters to pass on the sidewalk.
Posts about the protest on social media in China were promptly deleted, as the Chinese Communist Party usually does to quash criticism.
Earlier Saturday, authorities in the Xinjiang region opened up some neighborhoods in Urumqi after residents staged extraordinary late-night demonstrations against the city’s strict lockdown that has lasted for more than three months. Many claimed that obstructions from virus control measures made the fire worse. It took emergency workers three hours to put out the flames, but officials denied the claims, saying there were no barricades in the building and residents were allowed to leave.
During Xinjiang’s lockdown, some residents’ doors were locked elsewhere in the city, including one who spoke to the Associated Press who declined to be named for fear of retribution. Many in Urumqi believe that these brute force methods may have prevented residents from escaping in Thursday’s fire and that the official death toll was undercounted.
Anger boiled over after officials in the city of Urumqi held a press conference about the fire in which they appeared to shift responsibility for the deaths onto the residents of the apartment tower.
“Some residents’ ability to save themselves was very weak,” said Li Wensheng, chief of the Urumqi Fire Department.
Police cracked down on dissenting voices, announcing the arrest of a 24-year-old woman for posting “incorrect information” about the death toll online.
Late on Friday, people in Urumqi walked peacefully in large puffy winter jackets in the cold winter night.
Videos of the protests showed people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “open up, open up”. They spread quickly on Chinese social media despite heavy censorship. According to the videos, in some scenes people shouted and pushed rows of men in white full-covering hazmat suits worn by local government employees and epidemic prevention volunteers.
By Saturday, most of them had been deleted by censors. The Associated Press could not independently verify all of the videos, but two Urumqi residents who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals said large-scale protests took place Friday night. One of them said he had friends who participated.
The Associated Press located two videos of protests in different parts of Urumqi. In one video, policemen in hospital masks and gowns confront screaming protesters. In another, a protester spoke to a crowd about their demands. It is unclear how widespread the protests are.
The demonstrations, as well as public online outrage, are the latest signs of frustration with China’s intensified approach to controlling COVID-19. It is the only major country in the world still fighting the pandemic with mass testing and lockdowns.
Given China’s massive security apparatus, protests are risky anywhere in the country, but they are unusual in Xinjiang, which has for years been the target of a brutal security crackdown. A large number of Uyghurs and other largely Muslim minorities were herded into a vast network of camps and prisons, fueling fear that grips the region to this day..
Most of the protesters featured in the videos were Han Chinese. A Uyghur woman living in Urumqi said it was because the Uyghurs were too afraid to take to the streets despite their anger.
“The Han Chinese know that they will not be punished if they speak out against the lockdown,” she said, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal from her family. “Uyghurs are different. If we dare to say such things, we will be taken to prison or to camps.”
In a video, which 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.
This promise was fulfilled the next day, as Urumqi authorities announced that residents of low-risk areas would be allowed to move freely within their neighbourhoods. However, many other neighborhoods are still under lockdown.
Officials also triumphantly announced Saturday that they had essentially achieved “zero community COVID,” meaning there was no longer community spread and new infections were only detected in people already under health control, such as those in the central quarantine facility.
Social media users greeted the news with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can achieve this speed,” one user wrote on Weibo.
On Chinese social media, where trending topics are manipulated by censors, the “Zero COVID” ad was the #1 trending hashtag on both Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. The apartment fire and protests have become a lightning rod for public anger, with millions sharing posts questioning China’s pandemic controls. Or mock the country’s strict propaganda and harsh censorship controls.
The explosion of criticism marks a sharp turn in public opinion. Early in the pandemic, its citizens praised China’s approach to controlling COVID-19 as minimizing deaths at a time when other countries were reeling from devastating waves of infections. Chinese leader Xi Jinping viewed the approach as an example of the Chinese regime’s superiority over the West and especially the United States, which has politicized the use of face masks and struggled to enforce widespread lockdowns.
But support for “zero COVID” has faded in recent months, as tragedies ignited public outrage. Last week, the city government of Zhengzhou in central Henan Province apologized for the death of a 4-month-old baby. She died after a delay in receiving medical care while suffering from vomiting and diarrhea in a hotel quarantine in Zhengzhou.
The government has doubled down on its policy even as it eases some measures, such as shortening quarantine periods. The central government has repeatedly said it will stick to “zero COVID”.
Many in Xinjiang have been locked down since August. Most were not allowed to leave their homes, and some reported dire conditions, including sporadic food deliveries that caused residents to starve.. On Friday, the city recorded 220 new cases of infection, the vast majority of which were asymptomatic.
The Uyghur woman in Urumqi said she has been stuck in her apartment since August 8, not even allowed to open her window. On Friday, residents in her neighborhood defied the order, opening their windows and shouting in protest. she joined.
“No more closures! No more shutdowns! they cried.
Kang reported from Beijing.
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