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Tough lockdown unites Chinese

“We are both In the same building, only the fire hasn’t reached us yet. So said a protester in Hunan province on Nov. 27. He was referring to a fire three days earlier in an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, that killed 10 people. Many Chinese believe the country’s The tragedy was fueled by Covid-19 restrictions, so in a rare moment of regional solidarity, hundreds took to the streets in cities across China to express their displeasure with the “zero coronavirus” policy.

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Solidarity doesn’t stop there, though. Neither Chinese officials nor protesters mentioned the race of those killed in the fire. Most, if not all, are Uyghurs, members of a predominantly Muslim minority who have suffered from a years-long campaign of mass detention, forced labor, and cultural erasure in the name of counter-terrorism. It is too dangerous for Uyghurs to participate in protests. But members of China’s dominant Han ethnicity have shown little sympathy for their broader plight, either because the Han don’t know, don’t believe it’s happening, or think solving the problem would cross a red line set by the government.

This leads to awkward moments. On November 27, at a vigil for fire victims in Beijing, one demonstrator said: “I am from Xinjiang, thank you for coming!” Another pointedly replied: “We are all Chinese! Abroad, Uyghurs can protest without fear of arrest, but sometimes things can get unsettling. On November 28, two vigils were held in Amsterdam, one led by Uyghurs and the other by Han Chinese. The two groups sparred when Uyghurs raised the East Turkestan flag, a symbol of independence. Han protesters do not want to be associated with separatism; some criticize Uyghurs for asserting they are not Chinese. One Han participant who had hoped the groups would stand together said it was “frustrating” and “ridiculous”.

Abduweli Ayup, an ethnic Uyghur activist in Norway, said the Han protesters were missing the big picture. He noted that the apartment building that caught fire was in a Uighur district of the city near where riots erupted in 2009. Security name (a common feature in Uyghur regions). The video showed that water from the fire trucks did not spray out the flames, apparently because the trucks weren’t close enough. A callous official said the victim was “too weak” to save himself. At least one fire survivor has been detained, according to Mr Ayup.

Some of China’s longest and toughest lockdowns have occurred in border regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet, which have largely been locked down for months. Residents have struggled with food and medicine shortages and a lack of public attention. In October, Chinese media ignored hundreds of anti-blockade protesters who clashed with police in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In November last year, three Xinjiang residents were investigated after they published a large number of “Urumqi Urumqi Urumqi Urumqi” comments on the live broadcast of the State Council’s proceedings. The government has worked hard to keep these remote areas out of the public consciousness through censorship and regulation. The fire in Urumqi changed all that.

victim now, victim then

Still, the protests in China’s big cities mean nothing to Abdulhafiz Mematimin, a Uyghur living in Switzerland, who said his aunt and at least one of her children died in the fire. For Uighurs, who have long lived under the threat of intrusive surveillance and police raids, the coronavirus restrictions are just the latest approach to government control. Mr Maimaitimin said his aunt’s husband and eldest son had been missing since 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities were thrown into “re-education” camps. Some were later released, while others were transferred to prisons or labor camps.

The Chinese who have demonstrated in recent days have said nothing about it. “In 2017, so many Uyghurs were arrested, why didn’t they protest? Why didn’t they speak up for us?” Mr. Maimaitimin asked. “They are now protesting for themselves, for their freedom.”

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