Authorities in China’s western Xinjiang region opened up parts of the capital Urumqi after residents held demonstrations against the city’s “zero-Covid” lockdown that has lasted more than three months.
The displays of public defiance were fanned by anger over a fire in an apartment compound that had killed 10, according to the official death toll, as emergency workers took three hours to extinguish the blaze — a delay many attributed to obstacles caused by anti-virus measures.
The demonstrations, as well as public anger online, are the latest signs of building frustration with China’s intense approach to controlling Covid-19.
It is the only major country in the world that still is fighting the pandemic through mass testing and lockdowns.
During Xinjiang’s lockdown, some residents elsewhere in the city have had their doors chained physically shut, including one who spoke to The Associated Press who declined to be named for fear of retribution.
Many in Urumqi believe such brute-force tactics may have prevented residents from escaping in Friday’s fire and that the official death toll was an undercount.
Officials denied the accusations, saying there were no barricades in the building and that residents were permitted to leave.
Anger boiled over after Urumqi city officials held a press conference about the fire in which they appeared to shift responsibility for the deaths onto the apartment tower’s residents.
“Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak,” said Li Wensheng, head of Urumqi’s fire department.
Videos of protests featured people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “Open up, open up”.
They spread rapidly on Chinese social media despite heavy censorship. In some scenes, people shouted and pushed against rows of men in the white whole-body hazmat suits that local government workers and pandemic-prevention volunteers wear, according to the videos.
Officials also triumphantly declared on Saturday that they had basically achieved “societal zero-Covid”, meaning that there was no more community spread and that new infections were being detected only in people already under health monitoring, such as those in a centralised quarantine facility.
Social media users greeted the news with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can achieve this speed,” wrote one user on Weibo.
The explosion of criticism marks a sharp turn in public opinion. Early on in the pandemic, China’s approach to controlling Covid was hailed by its own citizens as minimising deaths at a time when other countries were suffering devastating waves of infections.
China’s leader Xi Jinping had held up the approach as an example of the superiority of the Chinese system in comparison to the West and especially the US, which had politicised the use of face masks and had difficulties enacting widespread lockdowns.
But support for “zero-Covid” has cratered in recent months, as tragedies sparked public anger.
Last week, the Zhengzhou city government in the central province of Henan apologised for the death of a four-month old baby. She died after a delay in receiving medical attention while suffering illness in quarantine at a hotel in Zhengzhou.
The government has doubled down its policy even as it loosens some measures, such as shortening quarantine times. The central government has repeatedly said it will stick to “zero Covid”.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, health authorities reported 2,454 new cases in the past 15 hours on Saturday. Much of the city is also under lockdown.