Violence erupts in China as people try to leave coronavirus-stricken Hubei province

Violent clashes erupted on a bridge between China’s virus-stricken Hubei province and neighbouring Jiangxi province, days after authorities relaxed an epidemic lockdown.

Police vehicles were overturned and police scuffled with each other amid large crowds of shouting people, according to a series of videos posted to Chinese social media. The confrontation came after authorities in Jiangxi blocked entry to people from Hubei, local media reported.

Hubei this week lifted its lockdown of areas of the province outside Wuhan.

But deep distrust has taken root across China toward people from Hubei, fuelled by fear of COVID-19, which spread widely in the province, as well as skepticism of official reassurances that the epidemic has been successfully suppressed. People from Hubei have been refused entry to hotels and their homes, even if they were not in Hubei during the past two months. On social media, people have reported being barred from entering Beijing merely because their hometown is in Hubei.

Now, the release of lockdown measures means large numbers of people from Hubei are attempting to move elsewhere in China, threatening new hostilities.

On Friday, videos of the bridge confrontation showed a line of uniformed officers behind riot shields positioned across the bridge, blocking movement from Hubei province across the Yangtze River into Jiujiang, a city in Jiangxi. A large crowd marched toward the blockade chanting “Let’s go, Hubei!” In another video, Ma Yangzhou, the secretary of the party committee in Huangmei County on the Hubei side, urges people to disperse. “It’s dangerous for you to gather like this on the bridge,” he said, citing both the block to transportation and “the risk of virus infection.”

The clashes took place between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., a worker at a toll booth on the bridge told the Globe and Mail in an interview Friday evening. “It was on the middle of the bridge somewhere that the block was put in place,“ said Ms. Huang, the worker. The Globe is not identifying her by her full name because she is not authorized to speak to foreign media. On Friday evening, digital mapping apps showed the bridge closed from both sides, citing “construction.”

In a brief commentary published on its Twitter-like Weibo account, the state-owned People’s Daily called the bridge conflict “regrettable.”

“The people of Hubei have made great efforts and significant contributions to winning the battle against the epidemic,” the commentary said. “People from all sectors of society have also been calling for the acceptance of Hubei’s migrant workers. However, it’s undeniable that some individuals of some regions have intentionally or unintentionally discriminated against Hubei people, set up obstacles for them to return to work” and discriminated against them.

According to official government policy, those who live outside Wuhan and are considered healthy have been allowed to resume travels since Wednesday. Authorities reopened railways and long-distance bus service, and pledged to completely remove all highway roadblocks by Friday. The desire to leave Hubei is substantial: Qichun County in the city of Huanggang counts one million residents, but has said 216,000 need to leave for work.

Hubei province has reported only a single new case in the past week. The province counts nearly 68,000 confirmed cases and says 3,174 people have died from COVID-19 since the outbreak began late last year.

On Friday, authorities downgraded the virus risk classification of Wuhan from “high risk” to “medium risk.” The tight lockdown measures in the city are scheduled to ease on April 8.

But even as Chinese authorities push to resume normal life, skepticism is growing about the accuracy of the virus numbers in the region. Health authorities have acknowledged that their tally of confirmed cases does not include people who have the virus but have not shown symptoms. Those asymptomatic cases are believed to number in the tens of thousands.

New questions have also emerged about the accuracy of the official death toll. Earlier this week, authorities began to distribute to family members the ashes of their cremated loved ones. Photos taken by people at funeral homes showed long lines and large numbers of remains. Photos published by Caixin Media from one of Wuhan’s eight funeral homes showed well in excess of 1,000 boxes containing remains.