Several witnesses claimed that emergency response to the blaze was hampered due to the Covid curbs.
Videos circulating on social media, showed hundreds of people marching through the streets of Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, shouting “lift the lockdown”. Crowds were also seen shouting at hazmat-suited guards and pumping their fists in the air.
China has put the vast Xinjiang region under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, with many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days. The city reported about 200 new cases in the past two days.
A failed policy
The strict lockdowns in several major cities across China have caused unrest among the population, which is increasingly resorting to protests.
Users on China’s Weibo platform described the incident as a tragedy that sprang out of China’s insistence on sticking to its ‘zero-Covid policy’ and something that could happen to anyone.
In a clear sign that the ‘zero-Covid’ policy has failed, daily coronavirus cases have hit figures not seen since last year. China reported 35,183 new Covid infections on November 25, setting a new high for the third consecutive day.
Officials, however, have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting toll on the world’s second-biggest economy.
While the country recently tweaked its measures, shortening quarantines and taking other targeted steps, this coupled with rising cases has caused widespread confusion and uncertainty in big cities, including Beijing, where many residents are locked down at home.
Lockdowns to quell dissent
Protests in China are rare and usually met with swift, and often violent, repercussions by authorities.
But unrest over harsh Covid norms has pushed thousands to come out onto the streets.
There are also fears among the population that the government is using Covid lockdowns to quell dissent over pay disparity, labour conditions, housing crisis and other issues.
Zhengzhou, home to the world’s largest iPhone factory, effectively went into lockdown from Friday for five days.
Authorities have ordered residents of eight districts in Zhengzhou, in the central province of Henan, not to leave the area and have built barriers around “high-risk” apartment buildings and set up checkpoints to restrict travel.
However, there have been only a handful of coronavirus cases in the city.
The lockdown of 6 million people in Zhengzhou in fact follows clashes between police and workers furious over pay and labour conditions. The lockdown orders came after protests erupted over conditions and pay at Foxconn’s vast iPhone factory on the outskirts of the city, with fresh images of rallies emerging on Friday.
Video footage published on social media showed a large group of people walking down a street in the east of the city, some holding signs.
In the southeastern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, millions of people have been ordered not to leave their homes without a negative virus test. Social media footage published on Friday showed residents of the city’s Haizhu district dismantling barricades and throwing objects at police in hazmat attire.
The protesters also raised slogans over delayed or insufficient wages, and discontent over the worsening housing crisis.
Some of China’s biggest cities, from Beijing to southern Guangzhou and sprawling Chongqing, are tightening curbs and ordering large swaths of their population indoors as Covid infections soared to new daily records this week. Shanghai endured a grueling two-month lockdown earlier this year.
Protests becoming more frequent
The continued tension over Covid curbs and resultant stress on the economy has pushed many people to speak out against the administration over other issues.
According to Freedom House‘s China Dissent Monitor, 668 incidents of dissent were observed in the country from July to September this year. Cases of dissent have risen significantly over the past 2 months.
“Among the 668 incidents, 636 cases (95%) occurred offline, such as demonstrations, strikes, and occupations; while 32 cases (5%) involved online dissent,” it said.
The report said the greatest number of events occurred in the provinces of Hebei (77), Henan (72), Guangdong (49) and Shaanxi (49).
From nationwide protests by property owners to public anger over frequents lockdowns, there have been several instances of dissent in China.
According to the report, among all the documented cases, 214 (32%) involved delayed housing projects, 110 (17%) involved pay and benefits, and 106 (16%) involved fraud.
(With inputs from agencies)