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From Fire to Fury

By: Elyanne Roen

On November 24, 2022 fire erupted from an apartment building in the city of Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. Ten people were killed and nine were injured due to inhalations of the toxic fumes and smoke. A family member of one of the residents told CNN that their granddaughter was charging her tablet when an electrical fault caused smoke to fill their home and a fire to spark. An investigation showed that the fire was sparked in the bedroom of their 15th-floor apartments. The flames spread from the 15th floor to the 17th floor, smoke billowed all the way up to the 21st floor, according to media reports. It took three hours to extinguish the fire. Some fire engines had been blocked by pandemic control barriers and videos from other buildings suggest that firefighters were delayed in reaching the residents because of street level lockdown restrictions.

Residents were locked in their apartments the fires because of the harsh lockdowns and China’s zero-COVID policy. Many of the deaths from the fire have been blamed on this zero-COVID policy. Hundreds of residents gathered for a candlelight vigil in memory of those who were lost in the fire. But their grief and sorrow soon turned into anger against the government's policies. The people blamed the restrictions and the government for preventing people from escaping from the apartment building. Protests quickly rose across China. The crowds would chant “‘give me freedom or give me death’” as well as calling President Xi Jinping to resign. People would post videos of the protests but soon those videos would be taken down. This was an example of China’s censorship and soon the protests over Covid policies turned into crowds chanting slogans for political reform and freedom, including freedom of speech. The demonstrators would hold up blank pieces of paper as a symbolic protest against censorship. In some of the protests, demonstrators would be arrested by the government and beaten.

The fire and protests lead to questions of whether or not China will relax Covid policies, and if progress will be made in China’s human rights policies regarding freedom of speech.

Image Citations:

1. The Washington Post

2. BBC

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