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China’s Xinjiang region eases pandemic restrictions after lockdown protests

Authorities in China’s far western Xinjiang region opened up some neighborhoods in the capital, Urumqi, on Saturday in response to protests opposing the city’s prolonged COVID-19 lockdown.

The move came after displays of public defiance over a deadly Friday night fire in an apartment compound that killed 10. Emergency workers took three hours to extinguish the blaze, a delay many attributed to obstacles caused by anti-virus measures. Large crowds of protestors later shouted down hazmat-suited guards in defiance.

Authorities said the building’s residents were able to go downstairs, but videos of emergency crews’ efforts, shared on Chinese social media, led many internet users to surmise the residents couldn’t escape in time because the building was partially locked down.

The demonstrations, as well as public anger online, are the latest signs of growing frustration with China’s intense measures to fight COVID-19. It’s the only major country in the world still fighting the pandemic through mass testing and lockdowns.

China has put the Xinjiang region, home to the country’s Muslim-minority Uyghur population, under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, with many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents prohibited from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.

A picture of a man wearing a face mask holding a boy.

During Xinjiang’s lockdown, some residents elsewhere in the city have had their doors chained physically shut, including one who spoke to The Associated Press but declined to be named for fear of retribution.

Many residents of the capital city said they believe such tactics may have prevented residents from escaping Friday’s fire and that the official death toll of 10 was an undercount.

Officials have denied such accusations, saying there were no barricades in the building and that residents were permitted to leave.

Tensions boiled even more after Urumqi city officials at a press conference appeared to shift responsibility for the deaths onto the apartment tower’s residents.

“Some residents’ ability to rescue themselves was too weak,” said Li Wensheng, head of Urumqi’s fire department.

Videos of protests featured people holding the Chinese flag and shouting “Open up, open up.”

They spread rapidly on Chinese social media despite heavy censorship. In some scenes, people shouted and pushed against rows of men in the white whole-body hazmat suits that local government workers and pandemic-prevention volunteers wear, according to the videos.

By Saturday, most of the footage had been deleted by censors.

A picture of a Chinese security guard wearing a face mask.

Officials also triumphantly declared Saturday that they had basically achieved “societal zero-COVID,” meaning there was no more community spread and that new infections were being detected only in people already under health monitoring, such as those in a centralized quarantine facility. The pronouncement came as the nation set a new record for nationwide infections.

The ease of restrictions followed demonstrations in multiple other cities, including Beijing and Zhengzhou in the central province of Henan, where unrest at the Foxconn Technology Group’s huge factory has hampered the production and delivery of iPhones.

Social media users greeted the news with disbelief and sarcasm. “Only China can achieve this speed,” wrote one user on Weibo.

With Post wires