Protests Erupt in China After Urumqi Fire

Editor’s Note: Given the political content of this article, the Editorial Board has agreed to publish this article anonymously. We feel that the content of the piece and its relevance justifies its publication, and by virtue of the uniquely extenuating circumstances described in the piece, have decided to protect the writer’s identity.

This past Thanksgiving week has been overwhelming, tough, anxious, but also hopeful for me as an international student from China. I made hot pot with my friends on Thanksgiving night, but when I woke up the following day, everything seemed to have drastically changed. 

My WeChat friend circle was bombarded with news of a fire causing at least 10 deaths, with nine injured, in Urumqi, Xinjiang. I had never seen so many of my Chinese peers, students both studying abroad and within China’s educational system, uniting and speaking up for the people in Xinjiang. Some shared articles alleging that some of those injured or killed could have escaped the fire were they not locked inside their rooms due to COVID-19 quarantine measures imposed by the Chinese government. Videos of the site conditions were shared, showing that fire trucks couldn’t access the building. Users commented that the building was obstructed by parked cars, which couldn’t be moved because residents in parts of Xinjiang had been quarantined for over 100 days and their car batteries were dead from disuse. This further aroused suspicion that lockdown measures had impeded the rescue process. Seeing social media full of pictures of flames, I resonate with the rage of my people. 

While protests initially targeted zero-COVID-19 measures, as the movement grew larger, people chanted slogans calling for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and democracy, criticizing the rule of the Chinese Communist Party and the rule of Xi Jinping. More and more people are marching in different cities in China. BBC News captured protesters declaring, “It’s my duty,” a phrase originating in Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. It’s unbelievable to see it reappear now. As a kid growing up in China in the 2000s, I never saw protest openly on the streets. For nearly my whole life, I thought, “Protest is just not our thing.” However, this unprecedented outburst of large-scale protests has drastically changed my mind: for the first time, I feel that we — the Chinese people,  not the CCP — get to speak for China. The incident happened recently, but our long-suffering hearts are substantially ignited. 

This outburst of protests, incited by the fire in Xinjiang, is rooted in the harsh, unscientific zero-COVID-19 policies the CCP has imposed on Chinese people throughout the pandemic. The government promotes China’s low number of COVID-19 cases, but never reveals the fact that people have suffered the most not because of COVID-19, but because of the zero-COVID-19 policies. Tragedies are all over, yet unspoken of. When one positive case is discovered in a neighborhood, is it necessary for the whole neighborhood to be locked down? When people cannot work normally because of the lockdown, isn’t it the government’s duty to provide them with food and compensate them financially? Is it worth spending tremendous amounts of money on the construction of mobile hospitals for COVID-19 quarantine? Facing accusations of injustice and human rights abuses, the government blocked dissident voices, demonizing domestic critics as making seditious comments and blaming “foreign forces” for distorting the actual situation in China to divide the country. 

Over the course of the pandemic, unrest has accumulated and ultimately exploded. Following the lockdown in Shanghai in April 2022, informal articles and videos posted on WeChat and Weibo exposing the predicaments of people in Shanghai were massively spread, though many were soon censored. On Oct. 13, 2022, right before the CCP’s 20th National Congress, a white banner with red words criticizing the zero-COVID-19 policy and calling for the removal of Xi Jinping appeared on the Sitong Bridge in Beijing. The most recent protests are symbolized by blank pieces of paper and referred to as the “white paper revolution.” When I first saw a student holding a sheet of white paper in front of her university, I immediately understood its meaning. You just feel the great power that a piece of pure white paper, without any words, can release to silently cry for the extreme injustice happening all over my country. 

My mind has been racing these last few days, and I don’t want it to stop. For a long while, it seemed people had forgotten how to get angry. Whenever I called my parents, our conversations were always monotonous, centered on the lockdown, weekly COVID-19 tests, extended quarantine, and increasingly intense censorship. Every day remained as robotically terrible as the one before. My mind seemed to have been paralyzed by what was going on, but the rising protests alarmed me into realizing that now might be our last chance to mobilize ourselves. 

I have seen posters at Oberlin explaining the protests hanging on bulletin boards. Flowers, candles, and explanations of the incidents have been placed by the Memorial Arch in Tappan Square, under an engraved verse by Du Fu: “I am grieved by the war and have not slept. Who has the strength to right heaven and earth?” When I saw people stopping there, I also lingered,  feeling glad that more people were becoming aware of the situation. At the center of the Memorial Arch, another short, powerful sentence hangs: “YE ARE WITNESSES.” Standing there, I felt it was no longer history presenting itself; we have become part of history. 

I cherish this time as a precious, rare opportunity for Chinese people to resist the zero-COVID-19 policies and call for the democratization of our country. Will governmental repression soon disperse people’s morale to fight in this revolution? If the government uses weapons against us, it’s indeed hard for protests to last any longer. However, this might be our last chance, and we must support protesters in China as much as we can. We have to relearn how to speak up.