By Heather Chen and CNN’s Beijing bureau
Chinese authorities said Saturday they would ease a months-long Covid lockdown in the country’s far western region of Xinjiang “in stages”, following protests over a deadly fire at an apartment building in the regional capital of Urumqi.
At least 10 people were killed and nine injured when the fire broke out on Thursday, according to the local fire department, and public anger over the tragedy has grown with the emergence of video footage that appears to show lockdown measures delaying firefighters from accessing the scene and reaching victims.
One video that was widely circulating on Chinese social media on Friday evening shows a large group of people marching to a government building in Urumqi and chanting “end lockdowns,” while another shows some residents breaking through lockdown barriers and quarreling with officials.
Across China in recent weeks there has been a growing torrent of dissent toward the government’s unrelenting zero-Covid lockdowns, which officials insist are necessary to protect people’s lives against the virus.
In the central city of Zhengzhou this week, workers at the world’s biggest iPhone assembly factory clashed with hazmat-suited security officers over a delay in bonus payments and chaotic Covid rules.
And on Thursday, in the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing in the southwest, a resident delivered a searing speech criticizing the Covid lockdown in his residential compound. “Without freedom, I would rather die!” he shouted to a cheering crowd, who hailed him a “hero” and wrestled him from the grip of several police officers who had attempted to take him away.
Urumqi, with a population of close to 4 million people, has been under a strict lockdown since August, yet despite the measures its daily Covid infections continue to hover around 100.
Speaking at a press conference on Saturday, local government officials promised they would ease lockdown measures in neighborhoods categorized as “low risk” by authorities “in stages.”
Residents in these areas will be allowed to leave their buildings in staggered periods of a day, but they won’t be allowed to leave their residential compounds until all compounds in the neighborhood are categorized as “low risk” areas.
Sui Rong, the propaganda chief of Urumqi, claimed the city had “basically eliminated Covid cases in society” because of the lockdown measures.
But she did not acknowledge that there had been any protests and neither did she provide any clear time frame for the relaxation of the measures or specify how many residents would be able to leave their homes or compounds following the announcement.
Meanwhile, hopes that Beijing might be signaling a slight softening of its zero-Covid approach — after minor relaxations in some quarantine requirements — are beginning to fade amid an uptick in cases as China heads into its fourth winter of the pandemic.
This week, Covid cases in the country reached record highs, according to the National Health Commission.
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