New York City, NY — After over 100 days of COVID-19 lockdown in Urumqi, Xinjiang in China, the government finally lifted restrictions in late November. But the decision didn’t come without a fight. Days before the lockdown lifted, mass protests erupted across the country. The protests began after a fire in an apartment complex named Jixiangyuan in Urumqi, Xinjiang cost the lives of 10 residents and injured nine.
Immediately, outrage grew across the country and abroad.
Citizens across the country gathered to mourn the deceased and protest against the regime. The protests were named after the size of the blank sheets of paper that citizens held up: “A4Revolution” or the “White Paper Revolution.” The blank sheets of paper held symbolize citizens being voiceless due to the regime’s phenomenon of repetitively censoring the words of citizens to satisfy the regime’s values and agenda.
A video posted by @SiminaMistreanu on Twitter shows people chanting for freedom and basic human rights at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square — the site of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest and massacre that is known as one of China’s most notable movements of protest.
On Weibo, most contents about the protest were censored. But users utilized foreign social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter to spread awareness. People all around the globe held up blank sheets of paper to show solidarity with Chinese citizens.
In America, Chinese international students gathered at their campuses to show support for the people of their homeland.
On Dec. 2, a “11/24 Urumqi Fire Commemoration” was led by @xinyan_fu in Tiananmen Memorial Park, Boston.
A video from @WEI_ATHENA1 showed New York University students standing in Washington Square Park. The students surrounded the candle lights in the middle and yelled out anti-regime slogans that demanded basic human rights.
At Columbia University, @DanielDiMartino posted pictures of students crowded on the staircase in front of the library. The university’s alma mater statue’s eyes were covered with a red mask and its neck hung a street name in Shanghai — one of the center sites of protest — named after Urumqi. This act is meant to symbolize the cold-bloodedness and restraint act of the regime that led to a severe consequence like the fire.
According to the Xinjiang Daily, officials said that a power strip had caught on fire on the fifteenth floor. The fire immediately spread to the seventeenth floor and the smoke made it to the twenty-first floor.
Netizens immediately suspected that the casualties were the result of China’s extremely strict lockdown policy that prohibits residents in high-risk zones from entering or exiting the building. This added difficulty to the escape of the residents as multiple doors were locked. Screenshots of conversations between residents, videos and photos of the locked doors and people screaming to open the doors were circulating online.
In the Xinjiang Daily, officials debunked the allegation. They stated that since Nov. 12, the Jinxiangyuan community has been categorized as a low-risk zone, which means that residents were able to freely use the building. One resident described that “on the 23rd and 24th, I went downstairs for a walk. I saw that adults were exercising and the kids were playing.”
Urumqi’s Mayor, Memtimin Qadir held a press conference that apologized to Urumqi civilians and promised an investigation on the matter.
Yet many are still skeptical about the “low-risk zone” statement. On Nov. 26, 6 a.m. Beijing time, officials released an additional 273 high-risk zones in Urumqi. But soon after the fire made the headlines, at 10:21 AM, officials announced that daily cases in Urumqi are nearly down to zero.
Footage was also roaming of fire trucks not being able to get closer to the building. Officials announced that the reason for this was because of the layout of the parking route and barriers. They said that the entrance was too narrow for the truck to enter; the removal of cars and metal fences that were placed to manually separate vehicles and pedestrians led to the slow rescue.
Google Map of Jixiangyuan’s Parking Route
“Are the metal fences set to regulate the pandemic?” One user asked.
“The cars have been parked there for over 100 days. The car owners cannot even come downstairs.” Another uttered.
“Why aren’t you letting us see the surveillance footage of the building, apartment complex and the hallway?” One netizen requested.
A netizen found evidence of a fire drill that happened in August, 2021 in Urumqi. The drill managed to put out a fire occurring on the 16th to 18th floor of the Huifeng building. The floor levels match the floor level of the apartment. The water was able to reach 197 feet high and the firefighter used a 180 feet ladder for rescue.
“The Urumqi fire department has all the equipment and techniques they need. There is no excuse for them not being able to rescue people.” The netizen emphasized.
Fault of the Victims
In a press conference held on Nov. 25, words of the head of Urumqi City Fire Rescue Department, Li Wensheng infuriated the public. He summarized that the residents have “weak self-rescue abilities” and “were not familiar with the fire exit route” and “were not able to efficiently put out the fire and escape at the right time.”
“Now they’re blaming it on the civilians. I’m speechless.” One netizen exclaimed.
“I really don’t understand why any government would make such a matter the fault of the victims.” Another user described their confusion.
“I’m sincerely questioning that even if we’re not in a pandemic, what kind of heart does that person have to condemn the victims for being too weak to defend themselves?” A netizen stressed.
What’s In The Future?
The White Paper Revolution protests marked the first large-scale anti-regime movements since the Tiananmen Square protest and massacre in 1989.
Though the responsibility of the casualty still needs to be evaluated, it is undeniably true that the fire is a trigger point to the years-long, piled up resentment of civilians.