ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 6, 2022) — A deadly fire in China’s Xinjiang region last month triggered outcry against the nation’s stringent COVID policies, resulting in mass protests unseen in the country since 1989.

Citizens blamed the country’s strict zero-COVID policy for the deaths of at least 10 people in an apartment building in Urumqi last month after video circulated showing fire engines struggling to reach the blaze while residents screamed inside. While it’s unclear why firefighters had trouble gaining access to the building, some residents linked the problems to China’s strict lockdown measures, which in some cases included barricading quarantined individuals inside their residences.

The tragedy caused a mass outpouring of people to the streets to express frustrations with life under such tight controls, especially while much of the rest of the world has eased restrictions. In a rare public rebuke of President Xi Jinping, residents have also aired their grievances with life under authoritarian Communist Party rule, which governs what they can read, watch, listen to and buy.

Youqin Huang is a professor in University at Albany’s Department of Geography and Planning. She studies the impact of market transition in China and her research focuses on housing, migration, health and wellbeing. She has recently studied health disparities with the COVID-19 pandemic in American cities, and shared her insights into what these mass protests mean for China and the rest of the world.

Read a Q&A with Huang here.