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How a deadly fire sparked rare protests in China

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in Beijing on Nov. 27, 2022. Protesters angered by strict anti-virus measures called for China’s powerful leader to resign, an unprecedented rebuke as authorities in at least eight cities struggled to suppress demonstrations that represent a rare direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party.

Frustration over China’s “zero-COVID” policy has manifested for months, but a recent deadly apartment fire sparked mass demonstrations in cities across the country in a rare show of defiance against the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Protests began following the blaze last week in an apartment building in the northwestern city of Urumqi, which killed 10 people and injured nine others.

The building is located in China’s Xinjiang region, an area that had been under strict lockdowns for more than three months as a part of the zero-COVID policy, which seeks to isolate every case and has led to rolling movement restrictions.

Fire engines responding to the incident were reportedly blocked by physical barriers constructed as part of pandemic control efforts and cars abandoned by owners who were placed into quarantine.

Videos showing the fire department’s difficulties have sparked fury over the policy, beginning a wave of protests that within days stretched to major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

The demonstrations began as China experienced record coronavirus case levels, fueling criticism that zero-COVID is not sustainable.

“We don’t think that’s realistic, certainly not realistic for the American people,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha said on ABC on Sunday. “Our strategy has been build up immunity in the population by getting people vaccinated. That’s how you managed an incredibly contagious variant like omicron.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has championed zero-COVID for the nearly three years since the country discovered its first case in Wuhan.

His support persisted through a months-long lockdown in the financial hub of Shanghai this spring, which caused food shortages and global economic impacts.

Despite some expressions of opposition from residents, Xi has continued the policy. He went on to begin a third term at the CCP’s national congress last month, stacking senior positions with loyalists.

But now, demonstrations have become significantly more widespread in at least eight cities across the country, at times turning violent as police sought to break up groups and stifle opposition.

“Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” demonstrators chanted in Shanghai early Sunday morning, a rare show of defiance against the CCP.

Police there used pepper spray at one point to break up demonstrators, detaining dozens of attendees.

Hours after being cleared by police, crowds returned, shouting, “We don’t want PCR tests, we want freedom!”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a CNN appearance on Sunday that it remained unclear if the demonstrations amount to a real threat to Xi’s leadership.

“These repressive regimes in Iran and in Russia, in Beijing, they have mastered the art of crushing dissent,” Murphy told anchor Dana Bash. “So, there have been hopeful moments of protests in Moscow and in Tehran, and we have seen those protests be beaten back. I imagine that President Xi is the most adept of all of these leaders in terms of crushing this revolt and rebellion that he’s seeing.”

The zero-COVID policy remains in place, but China on Monday eased some pandemic restrictions, including in Beijing, where city officials announced they wouldn’t block access to apartments where infected residents live any longer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tags Ashish Jha China China protests Chris Murphy COVID-19 Xi Jinping zero COVID

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