Deadly fire in China stokes opposition to Xi’s Covid policies

The fire started with a faulty power strip in a bedroom on the 15th floor of an apartment building in far western China. Firefighters spent three hours dousing it – too slowly to prevent at least 10 deaths – and what could have remained an isolated accident turned into a tragedy and political headache for local leaders.

Many people suspected a Covid lockdown had hampered rescue efforts or trapped victims in their homes. Officials denied that this happened. Still, many remained unconvinced, flooding social media with angry comments and taking to the streets in the city where the fire broke out.

Now the incident in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, has sparked the most defiant outburst of public anger against the ruling Communist Party in years. In cities across China, thousands gathered with candles and flowers this weekend to mourn the victims of the fire. Students held vigils on campus, many holding up white sheets of paper in silent protest. In Shanghai, some residents even called for the resignation of the Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping, in a rare and bold challenge.

The outpouring has put renewed pressure on Mr Xi, just a month after he secured a third term as party leader, sealing his status as China’s most dominant leader in decades. The broader source of anger is its “zero Covid” strategy, which aims to eliminate infection through lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing. It has kept deaths from the coronavirus much lower than elsewhere, but it has also brought many Chinese cities to a near standstill, disrupting life and travel for hundreds of millions and forcing many small businesses to close.

Protests are relatively rare in China. Especially under Mr. Xi, the party has eliminated most of the means to organize people to take over the government. Dissidents have been jailed, social media is heavily censored and independent human rights groups have been banned. The protests that erupt in towns and villages often involve workers, farmers or other local people affected by job losses, land disputes, pollution or other problems that usually remain under control.

But the spread of Covid restrictions in China has created a focus for anger that transcends class and geography. Migrant workers grappling with food shortages and unemployment during weeks of lockdown, college students stuck on campus, urban professionals fret over travel restrictions — the roots of their frustration are the same.

The Communist Party’s greatest fear would come true if these similar grievances prompted protesters from diverse backgrounds to work together, echoing what happened in 1989 when students, workers, small traders and residents took part in the protests demanding democratic change Tiananmen Square found common ground. So far this has not happened.

“Covid Zero has created an unintended consequence that puts a large number of people in the same situation. It’s a game changer,” he said Yasheng HuangProfessor at MIT Sloan School of Management who leads the China Lab.

“The anger has been building for a while, but I think the 20th Congress created an expectation that it would die down,” he said, referring to the reshuffle of the party leadership in October. “When that didn’t happen, the frustration quickly boiled over.”

The deaths from Thursday’s Urumqi fire and questions about whether the victims were sealed inside their burning building drew widespread attention in China. After nearly three years of pandemic restrictions, many Chinese have stories of occasionally being quarantined at home with wired doors or welded shut or emergency exits blocked. This shared experience seemed to fuel collective distrust and anger at the deaths.

“Yesterday I saw of the fire tragedy in Urumqi and cried all the time, and then I thought about the time when Shanghai was under lockdown this year,” said Kira Yao, a sales manager in Shanghai, who said she attended the candlelight vigil there for the victims of the Ürümqi fire.

“Later we shouted, ‘No nucleic acid testing, we want freedom,’ and ‘No to health regulations,'” she said. “I felt like I could finally say what I wanted to say.”

While many protesters narrowed their appeals to the easing of Covid restrictions, some took the opportunity to make broader political demands, linking the draconian reach of “zero Covid” to the country’s authoritarian system.

On Sunday, hundreds of students gathered on the campus of Tsinghua University in north-west Beijing, where they were largely barred from leaving the country for weeks due to Covid restrictions.

Elsewhere in the capital, someone spray-painted “Reject Covid testing” on the side of a city-centre building. Near the city’s old drum tower, people were secretly handing out white slips of paper, an implicit protest against censorship.

In Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the pandemic originated in late 2019, dozens of people gathered on the streets in at least two residential neighborhoods, some breaching barriers erected to enforce the neighborhood lockdown.

The protests followed hopes that Covid restrictions would gradually ease after officials in Beijing released a 20-point plan this month to limit the scope of the pandemic measures. Based on this plan, people had expected local governments to scale back contact tracing and mass quarantines, but as Covid cases surged, officials resumed the same sweeping tactics.

Mr. Xi has no easy answer to the widespread anger. Censors have acted quickly to clean up photos and video footage of the protests. If Mr. Xi cracks down on protesters, he could further anger the public and even strain China’s formidable security apparatus. If he abruptly lifts many restrictions, he risks hurting the image of unassailable authority he has built in part on his success in the fight against Covid. The resulting rise in infections, potentially fatal among those at risk, can also become another source of discontent.

“The immediate challenge is whether and how they move forward with ‘zero Covid’ when there is so much frustration. He has to make that decision in the next, say, 48 to 72 hours.” Minxin Pei, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College who studies Chinese politics, in an interview. “You can arrest people and put them in jail, but the virus will still be there. There are simply no easy answers for him, only difficult decisions.”

The political stakes were clear in Shanghai on Saturday night when what began as a vigil escalated into a street protest.

Dozens of people had gathered on Urumqi Road, named after the Xinjiang city, to mourn the victims of the fire. As the crowd grew to hundreds, chants erupted as people called for the easing of Covid controls. “We want freedom” said. A small number of them openly condemned Mr. Xi and the Communist Party.

“Xi Jinping!” a man in the crowd shouted repeatedly. “Step down!” some chanted in response.

“This has never happened before,” Professor Pei said. “It reflects a great deal of frustration with Covid policy. People are just tired.”

For most of the time since Covid began to spread from Wuhan nearly three years ago, many Chinese have accepted tight controls, including sweeping restrictions restricting travel into the country, as the price to be paid for avoiding the widespread illnesses and deaths that are affecting the United States and other countries suffered. But public patience has waned this year as other nations have become increasingly comfortable with living with the virus.

Workers at a giant iPhone factory in Zhengzhou, Henan province, clashed with police last week over lockdown measures and delays in bonus payments. Earlier this month, hundreds of migrants locked down in Guangzhou’s manufacturing hub tore down barricades and looted food supplies. In October, a lone protester draped banners on a bridge in Beijing just days before the Communist Party Congress, when Mr Xi won his new term in power.

The Chinese government is likely to fear that images and videos of the protests in Shanghai will spread despite online censorship and trigger further unrest. Crowds also gathered in Chengdu, a city in southwest China. Sunday video shownwith some yelling, “We want freedom, we want democracy.”

May Hu, who lives in the southern province of Hunan, said she spent hours watching a live stream of the Shanghai protests on Instagram, which is blocked in China unless using software to break censorship barriers.

“Before, everyone was just thinking about how to escape,” said Ms. Hu, who is in her 20s. “After that, a lot of people’s thinking changed to, ‘We have to fight and win freedom.'”

Some attendees at last night’s Shanghai rally expressed concern that widespread public anger could eventually provoke an equally angry official response. A recent college graduate who asked that only his surname Li be used said after seeing police rush and arrest people on Saturday night he was nervous about joining another demonstration.

“After some viewers have spoken up, they might feel empowered — that you can’t mess with people — but what will the outcome be?” said Ding Tingting, an art curator who joined the Shanghai funeral vigil, though later that night disapproved of the rowdy chants.

Local residents gathered in the same area on Sunday evening, some shouting “Release them”, apparently after police sometimes arrested people hard encounters, showed a video shared with The Times. Officers rushed others and prevented them from settling on the spot for a possible protest.

Muyi Xiao contributed reporting. Deadly fire in China stokes opposition to Xi’s Covid policies

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