(Reuters) – Public anger in China over the expansion of COVID-19 lockdowns across the country has erupted in rare protests in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang and the country’s capital, where infections hit a new record.
Crowds took to the streets Friday night in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, chanting “Stop the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air, after a deadly fire Thursday, sparking anger over a prolonged COVID-19 lockdown according to videos circulating on Chinese social media Friday night.
Videos showed people in a square singing China’s national anthem with its lyric “Arise, those who refuse to be slaves!” Others shouted that they wanted to be released from the lockdown.
Reuters verified that the footage was released from Urumqi, where many of its 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, banned from leaving their homes for up to 100 days.
In the capital, Beijing, 2,700 kilometers (1,678 miles) away, some residents under lockdown have staged small-scale protests or confronted their local officials about restrictions on their movement, with some successfully pressuring them to lift them ahead of schedule.
The decisive spark for public outrage was a fire in a high-rise building in Urumqi that killed 10 on Thursday night, and its case spread on social media as many netizens speculated that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down.
Urumqi officials suddenly held a press conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny that COVID measures hindered the escape and rescue, but netizens continued to question the official version.
“The Urumqi fire has angered everyone in the country,” said Xun Li, a resident of Beijing.
The closure that was scheduled for his “Berlin Ayu” complex on Friday was canceled after the residents protested to their local leader and persuaded him to cancel it, negotiations that were captured through a video posted on social media.
The plan was brought to the attention of the residents after seeing the workers putting up barricades at their gates. “That tragedy could have happened to any of us,” he said.
By Saturday evening, at least a dozen more apartment complexes had lifted their closures before the announced deadline after residents complained, according to a Reuters tally posted by residents on social media.
A separate video shared with Reuters showed Beijing residents in an undisclosed part of the city walking around an outdoor car park on Saturday, chanting “Stop the lockdown.”
The Beijing government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
Ask tough questions
Comments from authorities that residents of the Urumqi building were able to go downstairs and thus likely be seen as victim-blaming only added to the public outcry, said Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.
“For the first two years of COVID, people trusted the government to make the best decisions to keep them safe from the virus. Now people are increasingly asking tough questions and are worried about following orders,” Yang said.
Xinjiang is home to ten million Uighurs. Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against its Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in concentration camps. China firmly rejects such allegations.
China defends President Xi Jinping’s zero COVID policy as lifesaving and necessary to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. Officials vowed to continue to do so despite growing public opposition and mounting losses on the world’s second-largest economy.
China said on Friday it would cut the amount of liquidity banks must hold as reserves for the second time this year, freeing up liquidity to prop up the ailing economy.
The next few weeks could be China’s worst since the pandemic’s early weeks for the economy and health care system, Mark Williams of Capital Economics said in a note this week, as efforts to contain the current outbreak will require additional local lockdowns in many cities, which will further lower activity. The economist.
On Friday, the country recorded 34,909 daily local cases, low by global standards but the third consecutive record, as infections spread to many cities, prompting widespread lockdowns and other restrictions on movement and business.
Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub that suffered a two-month lockdown earlier this year, tightened testing requirements on Saturday to enter cultural venues such as museums and libraries, requiring people to present a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours, Down from 72. Hours ago.
(Reporting by Yu Lun Tian) Editing by William Mallard, Brenda Goh and Louise Heavens
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