The blaze broke out in a residential high-rise building in Urumqi, a city in western China infamous for the repression of Uighur citizens and where the temperatures have dropped below freezing after dark.
The fire is thought to have begun with a faulty electric socket in a bedroom on the 15th floor, before spreading rapidly to engulf the flats on higher levels in a hell of burning flames, thick smoke and toxic fumes.
Shockingly, the homes were filled with families enduring their third month of Covid lockdown, who found themselves trapped in a blazing inferno because of the brutal health restrictions of a dictatorial regime.
Videos on social media show arcs of water from fire trucks falling short of the building as rescue teams were stymied by pandemic control barriers and parked cars thought to have been abandoned by drivers forced into quarantine.
Recordings play the screams from dying people trapped in homes and desperate pleas for help from families facing suffocation. They detail the anguish of neighbours unable to help, efforts to shove aside cars impeding fire crews and even the crude wires reportedly wrapped around door handles to stop people leaving residences.
Ten people, including young children, were confirmed to have died, with nine others injured – although rumours are swirling around Chinese social media that the true number of fatalities might be more than four times higher.
Now these horrific deaths have ignited extraordinary protests in at least eight other Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, in the most daring explosion of defiance against the repressive Communist regime for many years.
It is highly unusual for people to publicly vent anger at Communist Party leaders in China, where direct government criticism can result in harsh penalties, including years in prison.
But the demonstrators are challenging president Xi Jinping’s pig-headed determination to continue imposing strict ‘Zero Covid’ lockdown policies on the country that gave birth to the pandemic.
The protests expose the growing mood of frustration after almost three years of restrictions in the only major country in the world still fighting Covid using the outdated weapons of mass lockdowns and regular testing.
Some bold protesters are even calling for the removal of their all-powerful president only a month after Xi won his third term as party head, which secured his status as China’s most dominant leader since Chairman Mao.
In the financial hub of Shanghai, police responded with beatings and pepper spray after young activists chanted slogans such as ‘Xi Jinping, step down, Communist Party, step down’ alongside loud demands to ‘Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China’.
The big question, as outrage grows on social media and protests flare up reportedly on at least 50 university campuses, is whether mounting frustration over Xi’s tough Covid policies might now spark a serious challenge to his ultra-autocratic regime.
Certainly, they present significant rebuke to an egotistical leader who has hailed his approach to Covid as proof of the superiority of China’s system of government after the initial bungles and cover-up that unleashed a pandemic on the planet.
The protests flared up first in Urumqi, where many of the four million residents have been unable to leave their homes since early August. Citizens wearing face masks confronted officials, pushed back a barrier protected by police and shouted slogans demanding an end to lockdowns.
‘Everyone thinks that Chinese people are afraid to come out and protest, that they don’t have any courage,’ said one protester.
‘I also thought this way. But then when I went there, I found that the environment was such that everyone was very brave.’
The authorities hastily apologised, promised an investigation and pledged to soften local restrictions, although they denied their actions led to the inferno deaths. One fire service official even appeared to blame residents for a failure to ‘rescue themselves’.
More protests broke out the next day in cities such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Nanjing and Xi’an, while state censors frantically pursued their ‘whack a mole’ strategy of trying to remove a surge of internet posts criticising lockdown policies and praising the protesters.
About 2,000 students gathered at Beijing’s Tsinghua University – Xi’s alma mater – to demand immediate easing of anti-virus controls and the introduction of free speech, according to social media posts. They chanted for ‘democracy and rule of law’.
In Shanghai, protesters clutched candles to honour the fire victims. One participant said they sang the national anthem and even felt liberated to break the taboo on talking about the 1989 slaughter of Tiananmen Square protesters.
Despite police trying to break up the gathering with pepper spray, beatings and bundling protesters into their vans, hundreds returned to the street yesterday. ‘I know what I’m doing is very dangerous, but it’s my duty,’ one said.
Some held blank sheets of paper to send a mute message of defiance to the authorities – a gesture to mimic the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which were crushed by Xi’s savage stooges. Others held white flowers, a sign of mourning in Chinese culture.
In Wuhan, the central city where the pandemic originated in late 2019, residents in at least two neighbourhoods joined together in the streets, some forcing their way past control barriers erected to enforce lockdowns.
Amnesty International appealed to Beijing to allow peaceful protest.
‘The tragedy of the Urumqi fire has inspired remarkable bravery across China,’ said Hana Young, deputy regional director of the human rights group. ‘These unprecedented protests show that people are at the end of their tolerance for excessive Covid-19 restrictions.’ These events are arguably the most significant challenge to the Communist Party leaders since the Tiananmen protests. Certainly they present a major headache for the control freak Xi in terms of their national scope and full-frontal attack on his signature Zero-Covid policy.
China, home to almost a fifth of the world’s population, claims to have seen just over 5,000 Covid fatalities – although the data on excess deaths indicates this is another deception by a dictatorship with a dark record of misinformation in the pandemic.
The tide of anger on social media is reminiscent of the pandemic’s early days, when the death of a whistleblowing doctor in Wuhan – reprimanded by police for trying to warn his colleagues to take precautions – led to deep fury over the state’s cover-up.
Since then Beijing has taken rigid control of the response to hide key data on the origins and early cases in Wuhan from outside investigators, while imposing strict lockdowns, digital enforcement and regular mass testing to restrain outbreaks.
As normal life resumed in the rest of the world, the arrogant Xi – alarmed by the comparatively low vaccination rates among elderly people and efficacy of Chinese-made vaccines – refused to alter the policies that became so identified with his rule.
Now cases are at record levels. Five days ago, China reported nearly 30,000 new locally transmitted Covid infections, with outbreaks in every region. This figure had spiralled to 40,000 by yesterday.
‘The Urumqi fire got everyone in the country upset,’ said Sean Li, a resident in a Beijing community that managed to thwart lockdown plans this weekend after appealing to local officials.
‘That tragedy could have happened to any of us.’
These protests may flare up or flicker out – but Xi’s record indicates he is unlikely to tolerate dissent, especially just five weeks after he put himself on a pedestal beside Mao, the founder of the Communist state.
Days ahead of the party congress when Xi accepted his latest term in power, a lone protester pierced the rings of security in Beijing to drape banners on a bridge that called for the end to the Communist dictatorship.
‘We want food, not PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns. We want respect, not lies. We want reform, not a Cultural Revolution. We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves,’ read one banner, while a second demanded Xi’s removal.
The courageous activist electrified the internet but was rapidly detained. Now he is being belatedly joined by some of his fellow citizens, sharing his desire for freedom from lockdowns at the very least, after sad deaths in a fire sparked burning resentment across China.