On Thursday, November 25, 2022, ten people were killed and nine more were injured in a fire in a residential tower in Urumqi, a city in China’s Xinjiang province.1 Although such fires are common in China (thirty-eight people died in another fire in Anyang just three days earlier), the Urumqi fire exposed the human cost of China’s unjust “zero-COVID” policy and precipitated some of the most overt antigovernment protests China has seen in decades.
At the time of the fire, Urumqi was under strict lockdown. Residents were permitted to leave only for short periods to shop for groceries, and local authorities controlled when they could go. To enforce the policy, authorities installed fences around residential buildings and sometimes locked the gates outside of these time frames. “Residents don’t dare to go downstairs without permits,” one said, “as it will violate the law even if the building gate is not locked.” As the Urumqi fire blazed, the fencing around the building locked residents in and firefighters out.2
Chinese citizens have endured nearly three years of authoritarian COVID restrictions. Cities are subjected to snap lockdowns when a single case is detected; businesses are forced to close, and residents are shut in their homes. In January 2022, as China hosted the Winter Olympics, people in Xi’an were locked in their homes with dwindling supplies, with some bartering their cellphones for food.3 More recently, as Chinese state TV broadcast images of unmasked, cheering crowds at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, viewers stuck in lockdown went to social media to ask if China and Qatar are even “on the same planet.”4 In response, the Chinese government censored related social media comments and altered TV coverage to remove footage of the crowds.
In China, criticizing the government often results in arrest, beating, and imprisonment. It is understandable, therefore, that few people have been willing to stand up against the Chinese government’s authoritarian response to COVID-19. But the Urumqi fire inspired people to do more.
In the days following, thousands of ordinary people took to the streets in cities across the country to protest the lockdowns. . . .
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1. Edward White, Thomas Hale, and Ryan McMorrow, “Xi Jinping Faces Stiffest Challenge to Rule as COVID Outrage Sparks Mass Protests,” Financial Times, November 28, 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/0239ecd9-718b-42b2-9067-ab93df3ceb0f.
2. “China Xinjiang: Ten Dead in Urumqi Residential Block Fire,” BBC News, November 25, 2022, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-63752407.
3. Tessa Wong, “Xi’An: The Messy Cost of China’s COVID Lockdown Playbook,” BBC News, January 6, 2022, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-59890533.
4. Mark Jones, “Chinese State TV Alter World Cup Coverage to Censor Fans amid Furious COVID Protests,” The Mirror, November 28, 2022, https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/china-covid-protests-world-cup-28599019.
5. Helen Davidson, “Xi Jinping Secures Historic Third Term in Power—As It Happened,” The Guardian, October 23, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2022/oct/23/chinas-president-xi-jinping-expected-to-secure-historic-third-term-in-power.
6. “The Status Quo of China’s Death Penalty and the Civil Society Abolitionist Movement,” World Coalition against the Death Penalty, February 15, 2022, https://worldcoalition.org/2022/02/15/china-death-penalty-2022/.
7. Andrew Stanton, “Videos Show CCP Forces Violently Crackdown on China Protests against Xi,” Newsweek, November 27, 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/videos-show-ccp-forces-violently-crackdown-china-protests-against-xi-1762561.
8. Laura He, “China to Punish Internet Users for ‘Liking’ Posts in Crackdown after Zero-Covid Protests,” CNN, November 30, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/11/30/media/china-new-internet-rule-punish-liking-posts-intl-hnk.
9. Martin Farrer, “A Ponzi Scheme by Any Other Name: The Bursting of China’s Property Bubble,” The Guardian, September 25, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/sep/25/china-property-bubble-evergrande-group.
10. “Category: Man-Made Disasters in China,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Man-made_disasters_in_China.