At Washington Square, dissidents support historic protests across China

Hundreds of protesters challenged the Chinese government’s strict COVID-19 lockdown policies during a protest in Washington Square Park, joining a global wave of demonstrations.



The sign reads “不自由 毋宁死,” which translates to “Give me freedom or give me death.”

Tori Morales, Deputy News Editor

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Hundreds of NYU students and local residents protested the Chinese government’s zero-COVID policies in Washington Square Park on Sunday, Nov. 27, supporting demonstrators in China who have become increasingly frustrated with monthslong lockdowns. The protests in China, which have since spread across the world, were sparked after firefighters were allegedly delayed from arriving at the scene of deadly apartment fire in the Xinjiang province due to lockdown measures.

A hand putting down a flower in the middle of three L.E.D. candles. In the background are a sign that reads “不要封控 要自由 Say No to Zero COVID Say Yes to Liberty” and two people standing next to the sign.
Some of the slogans are tributes to the lone Sitong Bridge protestor who was arrested in Beijing in mid-October.

The demonstration on Sunday drew around 200 protesters, many of whom were Chinese themselves. An organizer of the protest, who asked to remain anonymous, said the rare show of dissent against the government extends beyond its handling of the pandemic.

“It’s all these years of inhuman treatment of people that finally came to this breaking point,” they said. “I never really thought that we had the capability to rebel this way.”

China’s zero-COVID policy has drawn both domestic and international ire since its inception over its strict lockdowns and economic consequences. Under current restrictions, local authorities are required to begin lockdown procedures with even a small number of cases, forcing schools to close, bankrupting small businesses and bringing everyday life to a standstill. The lockdown lasts until no new infections are reported, which can sometimes take months.

A line of candles arranged on the ground at Washington Square Park against the background of protesters standing in silence. Some protesters hold a blank sheet of white paper in their hands.
The number of attendees grew from single digits to around 200, almost forming a wall of people in the middle of Washington Square Park.

At the protest, which began at 4:30 p.m., attendees stood in a circle around rows of LED candles and flowers to commemorate the 10 victims of the Xinjiang apartment fire. A small group of participants gradually grew as the evening progressed. Some held blank pieces of paper handed out by organizers, a practice which was started by Chinese protesters due to the country’s stifling of all forms of dissent. One protester brought a speaker to play the Chinese national anthem and protest songs including “Do You Hear the People Sing?” People also sang along to “The Internationale,” a song originally written during the international communist movement.

The words on signs and banners have evolved from Chinese attempts to evade government censors, including “yes,” “support” and “gratefulness” on social media platforms. While most protesters have been more reserved, others have called for President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party to step down altogether.

A pair of hands holding a blank sheet of white paper. The person is wearing a white sweatshirt with text “N.Y.U.” in purple.
A blank sheet of A4 paper has become the symbol for protests both in China and around the world.

“I think being able to see everyone standing together and voice up for the same cause is very touching,” one protester, who also requested to remain anonymous, said. “The white papers are like mirrors. They are empowering because they let us project what we want to say but cannot say onto it.”

For Chinese nationals living abroad, the protests offer an opportunity to support friends and family back home who may be in more danger if they openly criticize the government. Many of those who participated in the Washington Square Park protest were Chinese international students who are also afraid to speak out, despite living outside of the country. Arrests have been made during these protests, and already, zero-COVID protests have resulted in increased police surveillance and police brutality in multiple cities.

“We want to show our support, we want to show that we’re here, we’re listening and we understand what’s going on,” the protest organizer said. “We want to show them that we support them, and that we have something to say as well.”

Carmo Moniz and Sandra Cai contributed reporting.

Contact Tori Morales at [email protected].