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China and Covid19

The 11.24 Urumqi Fire: Mourning and Anger at Lives Lost in Apartment Building Inferno

As people mourned the victims of the Urumqi fire, they also expressed anger over how the last 100 days of their lives were spent in lockdown.

Manya Koetse

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A fire that occurred in Urumqi city, Xinjiang, on the evening of November 24 has triggered waves of mourning and anger on Chinese social media. Ten people lost their lives in the fire, and nine people sustained injuries.

According to Chinese media reports, the fire broke out at 19:54 at the 15th floor of a high-rise residential building in the Jixiangyuan community (吉祥苑小区) in the city’s Tianshan district. The fire further spread up to the 17th floor, with the smoke going up to the 21st floor. It was not until 22:35 on Thursday night before the fire was extinguished.

There have been various reports circulating online suggesting that there was a delay in fire trucks arriving at the scene of the emergency. Obstructions on the road allegedly prevented firefighters from moving forward and the road obstructions (possibly also including pillars and parked cars) had to be removed first. Local authorities are currently investigating the incident.

A preliminary investigation into the cause of the fire indicates that it was of electrical origin, and was caused by a multi-plug power board located in an apartment bedroom. A hashtag related to this received over 220 million views on Weibo on Friday (#乌鲁木齐住宅楼火灾疑因插线板着火引发#).

Image via Phoenix News.

On Weibo, there are many questions and rumors surrounding the incident. Was there indeed a delay in the rescue operation? What prevented the fire trucks from coming to the scene, and why? Was the building in lockdown or not? Did the building management adhere to all fire safety guidelines, or could a potential lockdown have prevented a quick evacuation?

And why were several images of the incident censored on Weibo, where one hashtag about the case received 1.5 billion views (#新疆一高层住宅楼火灾致10人死亡#) (yet did not show up in the top 20 of most popular topics)?

“Over 1.5 billion views, nowhere to be seen in the hot lists..” one commenter remarked.

The fire led to more public attention to the Covid lockdown situation in Urumqi. Urumqi has been in (semi-)lockdown for most of the time since August 10 of this year. The Tianshan District of the city is among one of the areas that have been especially affected by local outbreaks. Last month, locals turned to social media for help and to vent about Covid symptoms, high food prices, boredom and depression, the living conditions in their fangcang (makeshift hospital for Covid-positive isolation), and difficult access to medical care.

As Chinese netizens mourned the victims of the fire, they also expressed anger over how these people spent the last 106 days of their lives in (partial) lockdown. Some posted protest images saying “NO” to excessive epidemic measures.

At the time of the fire, the Jixiangyuan community was officially designated a ‘low risk’ area according to Chinese official media reports, meaning residents should have been able to move around their residential building.

But many netizens pointed out that the community was still labeled as a ‘high-risk’ area according to local epidemic data. At the time of writing, the community is no longer listed among the 66 ‘high-risk’ communities/areas in Tianshan District.

Screenshot shared on social media, showing that the community in question was a designated high risk area.

A screenshot that circulated online shows a WeChat notification of local community staff on November 21, telling residents that positive cases had been detected in the latest nucleic acid samples and that they were required to stay home for three days and that the unit doors would be sealed. This screenshot has not been officially verified or confirmed.

The famous actress and dancer Tong Liya (佟丽娅), who is of Xibe ethnicity and was born in Xinjiang, also posted about the incident. She published an image mourning the victims of the fire, saying she hopes they can rest in peace (#佟丽娅发文悼念乌鲁木齐火灾逝者#).

Besides all the mourning and confusion, there is anger, especially because it has not yet been clarified if the residents who passed away were blocked from leaving their units.

Digital artwork made in response to 11.24 Urumqi fire, original creator unknown.

While waiting for official investigation reports to come out, some are calling out for letting other provinces or regions do the investigation because they are scared the truth might not come out if local officials are in charge of the investigation themselves.

“Last time it was the Guizhou bus, now it is the Urumqi apartment building fire,” multiple commenters wrote. “History keeps repeating itself and it’s the common poor people who pay the price.”

In September of this year, a bus transporting Guizhou residents to a Covid-19 quarantine facility crashed, killing 27 of those on board.

One popular post received over 200,000 likes on Friday, with the blogger writing:

The Guizhou transfer bus incident killed 27; a Chongqing pregnant woman miscarried; a child in Lanzhou died prematurely [link]; those going downstairs during Chengdu earthquake found emergency exits sealed; in Xi’an a pregnant women about to give birth bleeds outside the hospital waiting for nucleic acid results [link]; an Inner Mongolian girl did not get to spend the last moments with her mother who jumped off a building [link]. And here we go again today, with residents burning to death in Xinjiang (…).

On Friday, the Public Security Bureau issued a statement saying a 24-year-old woman had been detained for spreading rumors on Weibo about the Urumqi fire. The woman will be detained for ten days (#女子造谣乌鲁木齐火灾死亡人数被拘#). The woman allegedly spread rumors about the death toll of the incident.

We will post an update to this story once the official report regarding the Urumqi fire comes out. 

UPDATE:

On Friday night, around midnight, local officials held a press conference regarding the fire (#乌鲁木齐1124火灾事故发布会#). During the press conference, officials refuted any rumors of the doors in the building being locked. They also confirmed that the building had been designated as ‘low risk’ and that residents were able to go downstairs since November 20.

One comment by an official in the press conference regarding how some residents lacked the knowledge or capability to timely rescue themselves (“部分居民自防自救能力弱”) triggered anger on social media. One commenter sarcastically wrote: “We’re sorry, lacking the knowledge to rescue ourselves, sorry to inconvenience you.”

Private cars parked on road sides, narrow streets, and safety pillars allegedly made it more difficult for fire trucks to reach the scene of the fire.

Within thirty minutes after the press conference starting, a designated hashtag on Weibo had received over 160 million views.

The contents of the stream of comments on Chinese social media directly following the press conference indicated that online anger had not been subdued at all.

“I thought they would come to apologize, instead they came to hold [residents] accountable,” some wrote: “It’s all the people’s fault.”

Read more about the “11.24” unrest in China here.

For more articles on the Covid situation in China, check here. If you appreciate what we do, please support us by subscribing for just a small annual fee.

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar

    we become what we behold

    December 6, 2022 at 8:37 am

    There’s nothing we can do about the passing of those who have passed away. No matter what they do, they can’t go back.

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China and Covid19

Chinese Commentator Hu Xijin Expects to “Get Covid Within a Month” (and Why It Matters)

This Hu Xijin commentary can be seen as part of a wider trend of normalizing Covid in the Chinese online media sphere.

Manya Koetse

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Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the Beijing-based retired editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, recently published a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo about him getting mentally ready to be infected with Covid-19 soon.

The former journalist Hu, whose posts and statements often go trending and influence public opinion, also made a few other noteworthy comments.

On Sunday (Dec 4), Hu posted: “Over the past week, China has essentially ended widespread lockdowns, with places like Beijing and others beginning to allow home quarantine for many positive individuals, while reducing the scope of nucleic acid testing. These are amazing changes.”

Four weeks ago, right before China introduced its twenty new Covid measures, Hu already argued that strict lockdowns are no longer sustainable and that China should aim for a more relaxed and local approach (which is exactly what happened).

Now, Hu Xijin says that he is “mentally preparing to be infected with Covid within the coming month” (“做好了在一个月之内被感染上的思想准备”), further writing:

In order for young people to have a colorful young era, in order to save the livelihood of so many service industry workers, in order for people from all walks of life to avoid seeing their wages cut, in order for so many companies to get out of their predicaments, this 62-year-old ‘Old Hu’ is willing to participate in the risk of getting [a virus that] degenerated to only 2.5 per 10,000 rate of getting seriously ill.”

Hu’s post was published on December 2nd in the context of Hu Says, a regular video column by Hu Xijin.

A few months ago, such a comment coming from such a big account would have been unthinkable.

In May of this year, those who tested positive still complained about suffering from stigmatization in society.

But Hu’s comments come at a time when there are more discussions about getting Covid and sharing the experiences of having Covid.

In the second week of November, shortly after Chinese authorities launched their updated Covid rules, the hashtag “What Is It Like to Catch Covid-19?” (#感染新冠是什么体验#) already went trending on Weibo, along with other hashtags informing Chinese netizens about what it’s like to get Covid – a virus that so many in China never experienced first hand.

Since Hu Xijin (1960) ended his career as the editor-in-chief of Global Times in 2021, his role as a political commentator has arguably become even more important and more visible on Weibo than before, especially in China’s challenging Covid times of 2021.

Some find him overly nationalistic, for others he is not nationalistic enough; there are those who find him reasonable, and then some say he is repetitive and just dancing to the tune of Party propaganda. But then there have also been some discussions – in light of Pelosi’s controversial Taiwan visit – about Hu misleading public opinion by not matching the official stance.

Whichever it is, some things are certain: Hu has some 25 million followers on Weibo, and he is often the first major media account that is allowed to discuss in detail some major sensitive social topics, even if these online discussions are otherwise being tightly controlled (think of the Tangshan BBQ Restaurant incident, the future of zero Covid, the Urumqi fire, and the 11.24 protests across China.)

Hu’s comments about ‘catching Covid soon’ can be seen as part of a wider trend of normalizing Covid in the Chinese online media sphere, preparing people to face a virus they are still unfamiliar with since ‘zero Covid’ has always been the main goal.

On December 3, Hu further clarified his comments about preparing to getting Covid. He explained he expects to catch the virus because he is active in the media environment, through which he unavoidably is in touch with many different people. He also promised that if he might get infected, he would share his Covid experience with all of his readers.

As the idea of catching Covid is becoming more normalized (there are more and more trending hashtags informing what to expect after getting Covid, e.g. #新冠发病7天内身体会发生什么变化#), people are also exchanging non-scientifical advice on how to prevent catching Covid, such as drinking licorice ginger soup, holding Sichuan peppercorns inside your mouth when going out, or getting silicon covers for the drains in the bathroom to prevent the virus coming through via neighboring apartments.

Some express their worries about catching the virus. “I’m really scared. I’ve already replaced all of my masks with K95 ones,” one Weibo user wrote: “My immune system has been weak since I was little, and I have allergies. I have the feeling that if I get infected I might lose half my life, if I don’t die (..) I’m in a state of panic.”

Even though China is still far from ‘opening up’, some people are already preparing to ‘live together with the virus,’ reminding others that getting vaccinated, keeping social distance, and washing hands are all measures that will help in preventing getting Covid.

“I am worried about getting Covid but I also want to open up,” some on Weibo said.

“As much as I wanted it all to end, this feels abrupt,” one social media user from Inner Mongolia wrote: “It won’t be the same as before. The thorough ‘zero Covid’ [policy] has gone. The country’s protection of our health has gone up to this point. I hope everyone can now take care in prevention themselves, and protect themselves and their families. I hope the epidemic situation will end soon, that the world will be ok, and that we can have our freedom.”

Meanwhile, Hu Xijin informed netizens on Saturday that he had some milk, boiled eggs, pastry and pickled mustard greens for breakfast. While working on his condition and nutrition, he says that if his Covid positive time comes, he will not get any VIP treatment. If allowed, he’ll either recover from home or go to a centralized Covid location.

He will just have to wait and see what happens, just as millions of other Chinese citizens are waiting to see what this winter is going to bring.

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Miranda Barnes

The featured images are all images that went viral recently in light of China opening up (including nucleic acid testing booths being taken away).

 

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China and Covid19

Announced Changes in Nucleic Acid Testing and Further Easing of Covid Measures Across China

Bus and subway operators in Beijing will no longer refuse entry to passengers without a 48-hour negative nucleic acid certificate.

Manya Koetse

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On Monday, directly after that noteworthy unrest-filled weekend, the hashtag “Multiple Locations Announce Nucleic Acid Testing Changes” (#多地核酸检测通知发生变化#) went trending on Chinese social media, receiving over 660 million clicks by Monday evening.

Immediately following demonstrations in Beijing and a second night of protests in Shanghai and elsewhere, various Chinese media reported how different areas across the country are introducing changes to their current Covid19 testing measures.

On Wednesday, November 30, China’s vice-premier Sun Chunlan made remarks at a meeting on epidemic prevention, underlining the importance of “constantly optimizing” China’s Covid-19 response and talking about a “new stage and mission” – without ever mentioning “zero Covid.”

This is what we know about easing Covid measures thus far:

▶ Strict lockdowns have been lifted in Guangzhou, Zhengzhou, and Chongqing.

▶ On November 28, Guangzhou announced that people who do not actively participate in social life will no longer need to participate in continuous nucleic acid screening. This includes elderly people who stay indoors for long periods of time, students who take online classes, and those who work from home. The change will apply to residents in seven districts, including Haizhu, Panyu, Tianhe, and Baiyun (#广州7区无社会面活动者可不参加全员核酸#).

▶ Guangzhou, according to Reuters, also scrapped a rule that only people with a negative COVID test can buy fever medication over the counter.

Harbin will follow the example of Guangzhou, and will also allow people who are mostly based at home to skip nucleic acid test screenings.

▶ Same goes for Shenyang, and Taiyuan.

▶ In Chongqing, various districts have done widespread Covid testing campaigns, but the local authorities announced that those communities that have not had a positive Covid case over the past five days do not need to participate in nucleic acid screening anymore. This means an end to district-wide testing.

▶ On November 30, Beijing also announced that it will start exempting some people from frequent Covid testing, including those elderly residents who are bound to home and other people who do not go out and have social interactions. This also includes younger students who are following classes online.

▶ Starting from December 5, bus and subway operators in Beijing will no longer refuse entry to passengers without a 48-hour negative nucleic acid certificate (announced on December 2nd).

▶ Although not officially announced, there have been various social media posts and reports about Covid-positive people in Beijing being allowed to quarantine at home if they meet conditions.

Chengdu Metro announced on December 2nd that it will no longer check passengers’ nucleic acid test reports. Passengers still need to scan their travel code and those with a green code can enter. Other public places will reportedly also start to accept the ‘green code’ only without a time limit on nucleic acid testing.

Tianjin metro announced that the 72-hour nucleic acid certificate check will be also be canceled for passengers on the Tianjin metro lines. As in other places, people will still need to wear proper face masks and undergo temperature checks.

▶ In Hangzhou, except for at special places such as nursing homes, orphanages, primary and secondary schools, people’s nucleic acid tests will no longer be checked in public transportation and other public places. They will also stop checking people’s Venue Codes (场所码).

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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