China rocked by major Covid protests after fire kills 10 in apartment building

Firefighters spray water on a fire at a residential building in Urumqi in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (AP Photo)
Firefighters spray water on a fire at a residential building in Urumqi in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (AP Photo)

Fresh protests have erupted in China against stringent Covid restrictions after a major fire gutted an apartment block and killed at least 10 people in Xinjiang. Nine others were also injured in the blaze, officials said.

The fire spread upwards from the 15th floor to the 17th floor of a building in Urumqi on Thursday night.

The firefighting operation lasted for around three hours, officials said.

Protesters were heard shouting “end the Covid lockdown” and tearing down barriers installed as part of China’s zero-Covid policy, which has left millions locked inside their homes for more than three months.

Locals claimed that the fire engines responding to Thursday night’s fire were unable to get close enough to the building because of either pandemic control barriers or parked cars belonging to owners locked in quarantine.

Videos shared on social media showed a stream of water being aimed at the building on fire from a distance, with the jet falling short.

It was not immediately clear why the fire truck was stationed too far away from the site, and the claims on social media could not be independently verified.

Abdulhafiz Muhammed Emin, an Uyghur Muslim living in exile in Switzerland, told the Associated Press that his aunt and four of her children had died in the fire.

“She was a wonderful woman, always thinking of her children and how to treat and educate them well,” he said. “My heart is really broken, I cannot bear it.”

Mr Emin cited social media posts saying that victims were unable to escape the fire because zero-Covid rules prevented them from leaving their apartments.

Xinjiang “is an open-air prison”, he said. “The Chinese government doesn’t care about their lives.”

Officials in Urumqi have rejected such claims. But China is the only major economy still enforcing harsh Covid lockdowns, even as its economy has been battered by the policy.

Authorities across are concerned by new Covid infections rising to historic levels, with the country as a whole reporting 35,000 new cases on Saturday.

Urumqi, Xinjiang’s regional capital, has been under restrictions since early August this year, even though case numbers there were and remain relatively low. Urumqi reported just 977 cases on Friday, almost all of them asymptomatic.

The fire incident will be investigated by a government team, Urumqi mayor Memtimin Qadir said late on Friday as she apologised to residents in a news conference.

According to the officials, the fire escape doors were not locked and the residents were allowed to go downstairs for “activities” as the area was marked as a “low Covid-19 risk area”.

They also blamed the residents for not managing to escape in time.

“Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak ... and they failed to escape in time,” said Li Wensheng, head of the Urumqi city fire rescue department.

This is the second fire incident involving significant fatalities in China in just a week.

Another 38 people died in a fire at an industrial trading company in central China caused by welding sparks that ignited a cloth earlier this week on Tuesday.