Public anger in China toward widening COVID-19 lockdowns across the country erupted into rare protests in China’s Xinjiang region and Beijing, as nationwide infections set another record.
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Crowds took to the streets on Friday night in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi, chanting “End the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air, after a deadly fire on Thursday triggered anger over their prolonged COVID-19 lockdown according to videos circulated on Chinese social media on Friday night.
Videos showed people in a plaza singing China’s national anthem with its lyric, “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves!” while others shouted that they wanted to be released from lockdowns.
Reuters verified that the footage was published from Urumqi, where many of its 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.
In the capital of Beijing 2,700 km (1,678 miles) away, some residents under lockdown staged small-scale protests or confronted their local officials over movement restrictions placed on them, with some successfully pressuring them into lifting them ahead of a schedule.
A crucial spark for the public anger was a fire in a high-rise building in Urumqi that killed 10 on Thursday night, whose case went viral on social media as many internet users surmised that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down.
Urumqi officials abruptly held a news conference in the early hours of Saturday to deny COVID-19 measures had hampered escape and rescue, but internet users continued to question the official narrative.
“The Urumqi fire got everyone in the country upset,” said Sean Li, a resident in Beijing.
A planned lockdown for his compound “Berlin Aiyue” was called off on Friday after residents protested to their local leader and convinced him to cancel it, negotiations that were captured by a video posted on social media.
The residents had caught wind of the plan after seeing workers putting barriers on their gates. “That tragedy could have happened to any of us,” he said.
By Saturday evening, at least ten other compounds lifted lockdown before the announced end-date after residents complained, according to a Reuters tally of social media posts by residents.
A separate video shared with Reuters showed Beijing residents in an unidentifiable part of the city marching around an open-air car park on Saturday, shouting “End the lockdown.”
For Friday, the country recorded 34,909 daily local cases, low by global standards but the third record in a row, with infections spreading numerous cities, prompting widespread lockdowns and other curbs on movement and business. ■