Urumqi Fire: WeChat Erupts
"Those were sounds of her boundless fury aimed at this world."
As of Saturday in China, many details surrounding the fire that killed at least 10 in Urumqi, Xinjiang remain opaque. It is widely believed that lockdown restrictions contributed to the victims’ deaths, and public trust has broken down in ways we have arguably not seen throughout the pandemic. A detailed timeline of the online uproar is available at What’s On Weibo.
There are credible reports of sizeable protests against lockdowns in Urumqi on Friday night. Footage verified by Initium Media is available here, and a larger collection of clips — not yet verified — is available in this thread.
The fire’s victims are reportedly all Uyghur. Input and commentary from non-Han people are a small minority on Chinese social media and difficult to gather. Urumqi is 75% Han, but the fire is said to have occurred in a Uyghur neighborhood. These are, allegedly, 4 of the victims.
On Saturday, mass gatherings and protests occurred in multiple Chinese cities and university campuses. Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, named after Xinjiang’s capital, saw crowds gather for a makeshift memorial that turned into protest; citizens confronted the police, and explicitly anti-government slogans were chanted.
Below are abridged translations of some posts that made waves on Chinese social media throughout the last 72 hours. Hyperlinks and bold marks were added by the translator.
Today is November 25, 2022, and the year 2022 is nearing its end. But for you and I, the end of this year seems different from any of the years prior.
Like the news from today: everything spilling out from videos and words seems to be pulling me — all of us — into countless other moments from the past few years, and then pushing us into an unending cycle.
This year has been filled with so many tears and cries that if we list them one-by-one, this article probably won’t have space for them all. Too many things happened in 2022, but as it approaches its end, it seems we’re all having the same feeling — all of them are starting to feel like the same thing.
ChinaTalk is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
In these years, whenever I fall into a similar mood, I always recall what Albert Camus said at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in the middle of a 20th-century pandemic:
For more than twenty years of an insane history, hopelessly lost like all the men of my generation in the convulsions of time, I have been supported by one thing: by the hidden feeling that to write today was an honour because this activity was a commitment – and a commitment not only to write. Specifically, in view of my powers and my state of being, it was a commitment to bear, together with all those who were living through the same history, the misery and the hope we shared.
Outside this insane history, the only thing we all share is suffering. Whether in the history we are living through or in the inability to forget sorrows, you — in this moment — are not carrying the weight alone.
The reason we feel fear and pain is precisely because we can always see ourselves in others. We’re afraid that the person who went on the bus was us; we fear that the person barred from the land of the living by an iron gate could have been ourselves; we feel all this viscerally, and thus are immersed in an exact, specific pain.
Of course, grief and fury are not some sort of virtue, and have nothing to do with any particular viewpoints. They are human instincts; they are common habits bestowed upon us by civilization.
To share in attentiveness, to care about the specificity of human beings when listening to those cries from afar: these are aspects of our basic human conscience.
This ability to empathize does not require any verbal or written agreement. It is an instinct, the kind that makes no mistakes. And this instinct is what ensures that no man is an island. We may be strangers, but tonight, we are destined to form a shapeless connection through a shared fury, a shared grief.
Living people bear witness to history every day, and every person living inside history faces a choice: to steadfastly stand their ground, or to cover their ears, shield their eyes, and bury themselves in the sand.
We’ve already made our choice. Even though we understand the powerlessness of our choice deeply, it still proves that we made our last choice within the limits of a minuscule self. The act of choosing, in itself, is enough to reorder how we perceive ourselves.
Recently, I often see people repost a sentence from writer Li Juan:
However, though it is true that overly sensitive people suffer, I’d rather suffer the pain of sensitivity than to live as an outsider.
Even at the beginning of 2020, there were many people who asked, “Why look at Weibo or read the news? Why not just be happy?”
Because none of the suffering happening all around us in these times will change if we choose to be ostriches.
Ten people died in Urumqi.
I saw a video where a fire truck was spraying water. A woman says urgently, “It’s not reaching [the fire], can he see the water isn’t reaching up?”
Some local residents asked questions. Official reports say this was a low-risk apartment complex, but there were still fences preventing fire trucks from getting close. Then the fences were taken down chaotically — in the end, supposedly, it took 2 hours to effectively put out the fire.
Maybe those 10 people didn’t have to die?
Because locking people in and blocking fire exits are sure to bring risks, and that was what everyone was most worried about. It still happened.
Those who locked people in thought it was worth taking a chance. Fires are a low-probability event, and “we can always open up when it happens.” But there is an abundance of evidence from history which shows that it is impossible to be “on time” when clearing fire exits after a fire has already started.
Our cities are dying. Of course, rural areas are no better. In Henan, huge amounts of vegetables are about to rot in the fields because farmers are unable to go in and work. Relevant departments are taking different measures to help farmers harvest and sell vegetables.
These difficulties didn’t have to happen. Let farmers go work their fields; let truck drivers take the road; let stall owners rush to the wholesale market at 5AM like usual. Let people work, and they will feed and clothe themselves.
Now, people are forced to do so many fundamentally unnecessary, extra things, and they’re even packaged and propagandized as “a common love of humanity.” But what farmers’ livelihoods will actually look like next year deserves sustained attention.
News from Guangzhou, Shijiazhuang, and Zhengzhou are showing a new trend. They are permitting, encouraging, and even forcing migrant workers to return to their hometowns. This not only creates difficulties for those “hometowns”, but also severs many people’s hard-won connections with cities.
The woman who hanged herself in a sports stadium quarantine center could not “get used to” fangcang life, and was too afraid to go back home. She was worried that if she went back to her Hubei hometown for Lunar New Year, people would “run their mouths” because she and her husband had been “positive”.
She represents the reality of life for the vast majority of us: caught between city and countryside, neither body nor heart able to bear either decision.
She had 30,000 yuan left in her WeChat Wallet, so on a material level she wasn’t completely desperate. But on a spiritual level, she could no longer see hope or a way out.
I don’t want to spread negative moods like this. What I am choosing to do is to leave the house whenever possible, visit those still-open shops, have a drink at the bar, and talk to friends in real life. …
We need to encourage each other, but also need to take action. At the very least, we should go downstairs and check if the fire exit has been blocked, and try to complain. This could save your life in a critical moment.
Now, we only have ourselves to defend our “lifelines”.
We’ve watched the videos and seen those last cries of help from the households.
On the 16th floor, there was one family where one grandma was home with three kids. Her initial cry for help was very calm: she said at first that there was a lot of smoke inside, and asked for rescue. She then asked neighbours what she should do. Soon her cries became weak; she said that she was begging them, that the kids are already low on oxygen. Her last cries for help were two enraged roars.
Those were sounds of her boundless fury aimed at this world.
The parents of this household were stuck in Hotan due to the pandemic. All three kids passed away during yesterday’s fire; the youngest was five.
From the bus in Guizhou to this fire; from 27 lives under the cliff to ten ablaze in the middle of the night. Could we not reflect on something, change something?
Those were living human beings.
Zhihu comment from a user in Xinjiang
The officials will have their own results from their investigations, but will common folks who, at this very moment, are still stuck in their homes be willing to believe these so-called causes of the accident? If there are one thousand Xinjiang citizens, there are one thousand Hamlets. Urumqi’s time zone is GMT+6, which is two hours off from GMT+8 in Beijing. If we do the maths based on the news saying [the accident occurred at] 19:49 Beijing Time, think about what you’d be doing at that time. Would people have been sound asleep? I’d like to tell everyone that if there were no lockdown, at that time people in Xinjiang would have just left work. What does it mean that ten people died of an apartment fire at that exact time? I suppose these unfortunate victims were all paralyzed in bed!
I’m afraid only we ourselves know what the people of Xinjiang have been going through since 2009. In theory ethnic minorities of the borderlands are known to be fierce, and a 100-day lockdown could have caused many conflicts, if not organized events. But reality shows that after so many years, the people of Xinjiang have become “tamed sheep”. We can’t even compare with fishermen in Guangxi’s Beihai, Hubei folks making a living in Guangzhou’s Haizhu, or workers fleeing en masse from Zhengzhou Foxconn. Yes, after all these years, we’ve started to gradually lose basic escape instincts. I wonder if the folks killed by the fire had to wait for a so-called notice in the last moments of their lives?
Perhaps no one can escape such a fate when living in an overall environment like this.
The flames this winter, I’m afraid, may just be an extension of 1994. I’m just afraid that one day, these flames will touch every common person, while those who played with fire dare not, cannot, and shall not ever complain until they’ve been burned to death.