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China’s Xinjiang eases some COVID-19 restrictions after protests

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China’s western Xinjiang region eased some COVID-19 restrictions in its capital Urumqi on Monday, after a deadly fire in the city blamed on virus controls sparked protests across the country.

People in the city of four million, some of whom have been confined to their homes for weeks on end, can travel around on buses to run errands within their home districts starting Tuesday, officials said at a press conference Monday.

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Certain essential businesses in “low-risk” areas could also apply to restart operations -- at 50 percent capacity -- while public transport and flights will start “resuming in an orderly manner,” officials said a day earlier.

Ten people were killed when a blaze ripped through a residential building in Urumqi on Thursday night, spurring crowds to take to the streets in multiple Chinese cities this weekend to protest against the country’s strict zero-COVID policy.

Many social media users blamed Covid lockdowns in Urumqi for hampering rescue efforts, but officials have instead said private cars obstructed firefighters.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday lashed out at “forces with ulterior motives” for linking the fire with Covid.

But in the wake of the protests, officials on Saturday said the city “had basically reduced social transmissions to zero” and they would “restore the normal order of life for residents in low-risk areas in a staged and orderly manner.”

Officials at the press conference on Monday said Urumqi would also resume parcel delivery services -- but logistics workers would have to stay in a “closed loop” at company dormitories.

China’s unrelenting zero-COVID push has sparked protests and hit productivity in the world’s second-largest economy, as the public grows weary of snap lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and mass testing campaigns.

A series of new rules announced by Beijing earlier this month appeared to signal a shift away from the strategy, easing quarantine requirements for entering the country and simplifying a system for designating high-risk areas.

But officials have instead dug in their heels, even shutting down large parts of China’s capital as national case numbers shot past the 30,000 mark in recent days to record highs.

Public anger boiled over on the weekend when hundreds gathered on university campuses and cities around the country demanding an end to the zero-COVID policy.

In Beijing, the city government said on Sunday afternoon it will not allow snap lockdowns of residential areas to be in place for more than 24 hours.

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