Over the past several days, images and videos have come out of different parts of China showing what happens when you push people to their limits. Undeterred by censorship, the threat of arbitrary arrest and detention, and a host of other possible consequences, thousands of people marched through the streets of different cities to protest zero-COVID restrictions. With chants of “Freedom, freedom, freedom (自由，自由，自由),” “Fuck you, health code (操你妈，健康码),” and “Step down [Chinese Community Party] (戏台),” the protests provide some insight into the frustrations that many have begun to feel towards the government.
It’s difficult to express how significant these protests are. While distance and intense censorship make supporting those protesting a challenge, drawing international attention to what’s happening and offering our solidarity is the least we can do.
China has kept its zero-COVID policy going for almost three years. While other countries like the United States have made living with COVID their official policy (with admittedly mixed results), China has held onto the idea of containing outbreaks before they can spread. Early on, this made sense, and while the draconian tactics employed were extreme, China did largely succeed in keeping COVID cases down, despite having the largest population in the world. However, as variants have become weaker yet more transmissible, numbers have climbed despite the measures, causing resentment to grow with them.
In late March and April of this year, an outbreak in Shanghai caused the government to lock down several districts of the city. Residents were ordered to stay in their homes and weren’t allowed to leave for any reason, including to buy essentials. Many citizens experienced food shortages, while people who tested positive (including children) were taken to isolation centers. While this past spring represented a low point for public sentiment toward the restrictions, resentment has boiled over again in recent weeks in cities like Guangzhou and Beijing.
Far from acknowledging this resentment, the government has doubled down on zero-COVID, further tightening restrictions in several cities as cases rise once again. In a government meeting earlier this month, Xi Jinping clarified that China will “unswervingly adhere” to its current policy.
The Powder Keg Blows
On Thursday, November 24th, a fire broke out on the 15th floor of an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital city of China’s Xinjiang province. As the blaze spread to other floors, state media reported that it killed ten people, but local reports claim that as many as 40 people died. Images and videos appear to show locked fire exits and other barriers preventing people from vacating the building, exacerbating the severity of the crisis. At the same time, fire trucks were unable to get close enough to the building to extinguish the blaze, as fences and other obstructions had kept residents on a strict lockdown for months.
Xinjiang (pronounced Shin-jaang) is often in the news as it’s home to the Uyghur people, a Chinese ethnic minority. Uyghurs are culturally different from the Han majority, being primarily Muslim and speaking a Turkic language. Far from embracing this multiculturalism, the Chinese government has committed widespread human rights abuses against Uyghurs since separatist movements led to conflict in Xinjiang decades ago. Reports and testimonies indicate that the government has detained around one million Uyghurs in internment camps. They also point to other crimes, including slave labor, torture, separation of children from their parents, enforced sterilization, and disappearances.
On a personal level, I met an incredible Uyghur woman in Shanghai who has since managed to emigrate out of China. She told me that her dad works as a university professor and that he often has to stay in the dormitories for weeks at a time while students’ parents are at reeducation camps. She also said that her mom was arrested once in the middle of the night during a random raid and taken in for questioning.
After my friend decided to move to another city in China, police and party officials interrogated her weekly to test her loyalty and assess whether she was a threat. Likewise, a camera was also installed outside of her apartment door to monitor her, while her dream job of working with a foreign company fell through when someone spread rumors that she was a terrorist. To say that she’s had a difficult life would be an understatement. Sadly, her story and experiences seem to be representative of what many Uyghurs, particularly those unable to leave Xinjiang, go through.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government works hard to ensure that these sorts of stories and reports don’t make it out of Xinjiang. But while many Chinese might not be aware of what’s happening in the province, zero-COVID policies leading to deteriorating social conditions and unnecessary deaths are things they can understand clearly.
What the Protests Look Like
Since the fire broke out, protests and vigils have taken place in Urumqi, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Wuhan, Chengdu, and presumably other cities and universities across the country. While some of the participants are there to commemorate those that died in the fire, others are going further, criticizing zero-COVID and the government, in general. In a society that doesn’t allow any form of political dissidence, this is remarkable.
In Shanghai, thousands gathered at Urumqi Road, just a couple of blocks away from where I lived. From ending censorship and holding those responsible for the Urumqi disaster accountable to demanding an end to dictatorships and Xi Jinping’s rule, the protests are of a magnitude that China hasn’t seen for decades. Some also sang revolutionary songs, including the Chinese National Anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” which goes as follows:
Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!
With our flesh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall!
As China faces its greatest peril
From each one the urgent call to action comes forth.
Arise! Arise! Arise!
Millions of but one heart
Braving the enemies’ fire! March on!
Braving the enemies’ fire! March on!
March on! March, march on!
While the protests have been peaceful, the state’s response to them hasn’t. In Shanghai, one video posted on social media shows police beating and dragging a protester away, while crowds of people try to save him. Another video posted on WeChat shows an officer striking a female protester across the face as she’s detained on a police bus while yelling “I just can’t stand the people [I serve] (我只是看不惯你们这些人民群众).”
Universities in Nanjing and other cities have begun to preemptively close in an effort to keep the protests from growing. Many in power fear that the current momentum will lead to another 1989 incident, which culminated in the student-led Tiananmen Square protest and led to the death of hundreds, if not thousands. As the current movement appears to be gaining momentum, the state’s crackdown on it will continue to increase.
Knowledge Is Power
China is something of an enigma to many Americans, with Western media often painting it as a horrific place. While censorship, arbitrary detainment, and outright genocide showcase how inhumanely politicians can behave, it’s essential to distinguish between a country’s government and its people. In the three years I lived in China, I found the people to be some of the warmest and most welcoming in the world. They, like all ordinary people, desire the same basic things: health, happiness, and security for their loved ones.
When COVID-19 first broke out, the Chinese government arrested doctors who tried to bring attention to the crisis. The death of one of those doctors, Dr. Li Wenliang, galvanized people, causing them to begin demanding answers on Weibo, a Chinese platform similar to Twitter. On February 6th, 2020, after questioning what happened to Dr. Li, “Freedom of Speech (言论自由)” began to trend as well. While the government blocked the hashtag later that morning, there’s a powerful takeaway from that moment. While we can’t underestimate the lengths the Chinese government will take to hold onto power, we also can’t discount the rightful anger that the people feel and are capable of expressing.
We have a tendency to not concern ourselves with what goes on in other parts of the world. From distant wars and famine to climate disasters and elections, it’s easy to forget that what we watch on the news involves human lives, and ultimately, our own as well. In this case, I fear that while much of the world may learn about what’s happening in the streets of Shanghai and other Chinese cities, international action may not follow.
You won’t find a GoFundMe you can donate to, nor do I think there’ll ever be a trendy graphic you can add to your profile picture to show support à la the French flags that took over Facebook in 2015. But understanding what’s happening in China is the first step to helping change take place. This past August, after years of campaigning by human rights groups, the United Nations issued a report condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang. While that doesn’t magically resolve things, it does add fuel to the push to end the crimes against humanity taking place.
Vigils have begun popping up for the victims of the Urumqi fire in New York, Tokyo, Paris, and other cities around the world. Short of attending one of these events in your area, staying informed and helping those around you understand what’s happening are the next best things you can do. Right now, the Chinese people need our unconditional support. As with any group pushing back against injustice, offering our support in the ways we can is the least we can do.