Fire kills 10 in China’s Xinjiang, raising questions over lockdown

Ten people have been killed and nine injured after a fire broke out at an apartment building in Xinjiang, a region in far western China, officials said, where Covid-19 lockdowns have confined many residents to their homes for more than three months.

The fire broke out Thursday evening on the 15th floor of an apartment building in the Jixiangyuan district of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the city’s fire department said. It then rose to engulf the top two floors, with smoke rising further, the department said on its official account on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform.

The fire was started by a power strip that caught fire in a bedroom on the 15th floor, state media reported. Firefighters extinguished the blaze about three hours later, according to reports. Authorities said the dead and injured, who were taken to hospital, had inhaled toxic fumes.

The blaze sparked a flurry of questions on Chinese social media about whether Covid restrictions had hampered the rescue or prevented residents from escaping their apartments or the building. Much of Xinjiang, a region of 25 million people, has been in lockdown for more than 100 days as part of authorities’ heavy-handed response to the Covid outbreaks. In some cases, the closures have left residents in dire straits, with difficulty obtaining food and other necessities, such as medication and menstrual supplies.

State media said the Jixiangyuan neighborhood where the fire occurred was a ‘low-risk management’ zone, a category of confinement that allows residents to leave their compound provided they supervise themselves. themselves and avoid large gatherings.

But many Chinese netizens were skeptical of the official account. They shared what appeared to be screenshots of conversations between the government and residents of the Jixiangyuan community indicating that the resort had recently been placed under a stricter level of lockdown, which could have made it more difficult for residents to get to safety.

Chinese commentators also pointed to video footage of what appeared to be attempts to put out the fire as evidence that a lockdown had stalled the effort. Footage showed pressurized water from a fire hose spraying just out of reach of the burning building, suggesting fire trucks may not have been able to get close to the building because the community had been cordoned off.

Accounts circulating on social networks could not be verified immediately. Xinjiang is an ethnically divided region that has been subject to intense government repression targeting Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim minorities. Residents, especially those of Uighur descent, often face reprisals for speaking with foreign media.

But descriptions of residents possibly locked in their homes or compounds fit a larger pattern of how these lockdowns have been enforced in many parts of the country. Makeshift barricades and locked doors have become a key part of efforts to prevent people who may have been exposed to the virus from leaving their rooms and buildings.

Reached by phone on Friday, an officer from a nearby police station in Urumqi said he had no comment and referred reporters to official notices. Other neighborhood workers reached by phone also declined to comment.

Uyghur activists outside China who have sought to draw attention to the long lockdown of people in Xinjiang said the tragedy showed authorities’ failure to protect residents.

“People are not allowed to go out easily without government permission,” said Tahir Imin, a Uyghur scholar based in Washington, D.C. “My frustration is that the government is handling the situation very badly. They have shown that they don’t care about the lives of the Uyghur people. How is the fire department unable to control this in three hours in a country like China with all its facilities, equipment and personnel?”

Online, Chinese netizens expressed their anger and sadness, sharing posts with headlines such as “Last night’s fire in Urumqi is every Xinjiang people’s nightmare.” They circulated black and white images calling for a minute’s silence to “express their deep condolences to the 10 compatriots who died in the Urumqi fire”. Some residents offered their apartments to families who had lost their homes in the fire.

Questions over the cost of China’s zero-tolerance approach to fighting Covid pose a challenge for Chinese leader Xi Jinping as he begins his precedent-defying third term in office. Anger over the lockdowns, along with widespread fear of the virus, has sparked large protests over the past two weeks by thousands of workers in the southern city of Guangzhou and at Apple’s biggest iPhone factory. , in Zhengzhou, central China.

China is grappling with a rise in Covid outbreaks, with cases across the country reaching record highs – although still low by global standards. As of Friday, the tally was approaching 32,700 cases, of which nearly 1,000 have been recorded in Xinjiang.

The Urumqi fire is the second major tragedy to be reported this week. On Monday, a fire at a factory operated by an industrial equipment maker in Henan province killed 38 people, in one of the deadliest blazes in several years.

“In recent years, it has become rare for fires to claim more than 10 lives,” said Cai Weida, a lawyer and fire safety expert in China. Mr. Cai said that given the small scale of the fire, the response from firefighters had been unusually slow. He attributed the delays to a lack of space to maneuver fire trucks, the unique challenges of a high-rise fire and “road barriers”.

Chris Buckley contributed report.

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