Fire Kills 10 in Xinjiang, Raising Questions About Lockdown

Ten people were killed and nine injured after a fire broke out in an apartment building in Xinjiang, a far western Chinese region, officials said, where Covid-19 lockdowns have confined many residents to their homes for more than three months.

The fire began on the 15th floor of an apartment building in the Jixiangyuan neighborhood of Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, on Thursday evening, the city’s Fire Department said. It later rose to engulf the two floors above, with smoke billowing up farther, the department said on its official account on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform.

The fire was ignited by a power strip that caught fire in a bedroom on the 15th floor, state media reported. Firefighters extinguished the blaze roughly three hours later, reports said. The authorities said that the dead and injured, who were taken to the hospital, had inhaled toxic fumes.

The blaze set off a flurry of questions on Chinese social media about whether Covid restrictions had hampered the rescue or prevented residents from escaping their apartments or the building. Much of Xinjiang, a region of 25 million people, has been under lockdown for more than 100 days as part of the authorities’ heavy-handed response to Covid outbreaks. In some cases, the lockdowns have left residents in dire straits, with trouble securing food and other necessities, like medication and menstruation supplies.

State media reports said the Jixiangyuan neighborhood where the fire occurred was a “low-risk management” area, a category of lockdown that allows residents to leave their compounds provided they self-monitor and avoid large gatherings.

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But many Chinese internet users were skeptical of the official account. They shared what appeared to be screenshots of conversations between the government and residents of the Jixiangyuan community indicating that the compound had recently been placed under a stricter level of lockdown, which could have made it harder for residents to get to safety.

Chinese commenters also pointed to video footage of what appeared to be attempts at putting out the fire as evidence that a lockdown had stalled the effort. The footage showed pressurized water from a fire hose spraying just out of reach of the burning building, suggesting that fire trucks may have been unable to get closer to the building because the community had been sealed off.

The accounts circulating on social media could not immediately be verified. Xinjiang is an ethnically divided region that has been under an intense government crackdown aimed at Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities. Residents, particularly those of Uyghur descent, often face reprisals for speaking with the foreign media.

But the descriptions of residents possibly sealed into their homes or compounds fit a broader pattern of how such lockdowns have been enforced in many parts of the country. Makeshift barricades and bolted doors have become a key feature of efforts to prevent people who might have been exposed to the virus from leaving their rooms and buildings.

Reached by phone on Friday, an officer at a nearby police station in Urumqi said they had no comment and referred reporters to official notices. Other neighborhood workers reached by phone also refused to comment.

Uyghur activists outside China who have sought to draw attention to the lengthy confinement of people in Xinjiang said the tragedy pointed to the failure of the authorities to protect the residents.

“People are not allowed to go outside easily without permission from the government,” said Tahir Imin, a Uyghur academic based in Washington, D.C. “My frustration is that the government is handling it very badly. They’ve showed that they don’t care about the lives of the Uyghur people. How is the Fire Department unable to control this in three hours in a country like China with all its facilities and equipment and people?”

Online, Chinese internet users expressed anger and sadness, sharing articles with titles such as “Last night’s fire in Urumqi is the nightmare of all of Xinjiang’s people.” They circulated black-and-white images calling for a moment of silence to “express deep condolences to the 10 compatriots who died in the Urumqi fire.” Some residents offered their apartments to families who had lost their homes to the fire.

Questions about the cost of China’s zero-tolerance approach to fighting Covid are posing a challenge for China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as he enters his precedent-defying third term in power. Anger over lockdowns, as well as a widespread fear of the virus, have prompted large protests in the past two weeks by thousands of workers in the southern city of Guangzhou and at Apple’s largest iPhone factory, in Zhengzhou, in central China.

China has been grappling with a rise in Covid outbreaks, with cases around the country surging to record highs — though still low by global standards. The tally on Friday neared 32,700 cases, of which close to 1,000 were recorded in Xinjiang.

The Urumqi fire was the second major tragedy to be reported this week. On Monday, a fire in a factory operated by an industrial equipment manufacturer in Henan Province killed 38 people, in one of the deadliest fires in several years.

“In recent years, it’s become rare for fire accidents to cause more than 10 deaths,” said Cai Weida, a lawyer and expert on fire safety in China. Mr. Cai said that considering the small scale of the fire, the Fire Department’s response had been unusually slow. He attributed delays to a lack of space for fire trucks to maneuver, the unique challenges of a high-rise fire, and “road barriers.”

Chris Buckley contributed reporting.

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