Oscar Cai felt numb when he found out about the deadly fire that broke out in a highrise apartment in Urumqi, Xinjiang, on Nov. 24.
According to videos reviewed by CNN that are now censored in China, victims of the fire couldn’t escape their apartment units due to quarantine measures that locked the building’s doors from the outside.
10 people died in the fire and 9 were injured, AP News reports.
“As a dissident of the Chinese government I feel like I’ve been desensitized to these tragedies,” Cai told The Signal in an interview conducted in Mandarin. “Things like this happen all the time in China.”
Cai is from China’s Guangdong province. He joined about 30 people in Victoria Park on Sunday evening for a candlelight vigil to honour lives lost as a result of China’s Zero-COVID policy, which he doesn’t support.
“I just want people in China to know that people with our views exist,” he said. “Otherwise, they can feel very lonely.”
China’s Zero-COVID policy was first proposed in December 2021. The policy imposes strict testing and isolation requirements to curb the spread of COVID across Chinese provinces.
When this Beijing resident showed how the fire doors were suddenly padlocked (and all other exits suddenly locked), I began to fully understand how terrifying the Urumchi fire story must be to folks all over China. https://t.co/SxzxqNbARM
— Julian Ku 古舉倫 (@julianku) November 27, 2022
“This fire could have been put out in a short time,” the organizer of the vigil said in an interview in Mandarin. The Signal is not publishing her name to protect her safety and that of her relatives back home.
She said has seen videos circulating on social media that show residents trapped in the apartment calling for help as the fire broke out. She wants government officials in China to apologize.
The fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, the last screams of the residents who were burned to death, other residents could only stand by the window to watch, because everyone was locked at home.#TheGreatTranslationMovement pic.twitter.com/Fr1gyrpPsa
— The Great Translation Movement 大翻译运动官方推号 (@TGTM_Official) November 25, 2022
She was inspired to organize the Halifax vigil after seeing similar calls to action by the Chinese community in Toronto. “This is a movement against unfreedom. We are calling for our legitimate and justified rights,” she said.
In its 2022 World Report, Human Rights Watch noted that Chinese authorities detained or prosecuted people for criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between January 2020 and June 2021, the Twitter account SpeechFreedomCN recorded at least 663 arrests for COVID-related speech.
As of Monday, 30,166 deaths caused by COVID-19 in China have been reported to the World Health Organization.
The Signal spoke to an international student from China at the vigil who didn’t want her name published. She said her grandparents weren’t able to go to work because of the lockdown policy.
“My cousin couldn’t get home because of the lockdowns and his kids couldn’t go to school and enjoy their childhood for three years straight,” she said.
“There are people going crazy because of lockdown. There are people jumping off the roof because of it. There have been 15 cases in my city alone that my family has heard of … of people committing suicide in the past couple months.”
Urumqi fire sparks global response
The protests in China have echoed in solidarity vigils around the world.
Eddie Yang is from China but moved to Halifax six years ago. He owns Swee Tea House. “The truth is, people are dying,” he told The Signal.
“All our family and all our friends experience these kinds of things in China. I’m not like a political guy, but when you see people around you trapped at home and starving for food … I feel really sad.”
Yang expected more people at the vigil, but he said it’s difficult to access verified information about news from back home. It’s another challenge to share that information on Chinese social media.
“We barely can do anything, say anything on Chinese social media,” Yang said.
The international student wants Canadians to know what’s happening in China and leverage their freedom of speech.
“People died,” she said. “Don’t let their deaths be in vain.”
About the author
Gia (she/her) comes from China. She is a journalism student at the University of King's College with a Bachelor degree of Arts in Culture and...
Audrey (they/them) is a journalism student at the University of King's College. They have a background in Contemporary Studies and Cinema &...