Guest Essay: Everything we cannot say: The global protests against tyranny in China

Protests in response to China’s extreme COVID-19 prevention protocols are kept alive through courage and unity.

Editor’s Note: WSN chose to withhold the name of the author of this op-ed, a Chinese citizen, to protect them from retaliation, at their request. They are an NYU undergraduate whose identity was verified by an editor.

What does the blank paper say?

The air was cold on a Tuesday night in New York. I got off the subway at 42nd Street, heading towards Pier 84 at Hudson River Park where the building of the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China stood. One block away from the solemn structure, I tucked my hair into a bun and hid it under a black baseball cap, then put on a black mask — better safe than sorry. Where I was going was a dangerous place, where being identified would be the worst fate. The blood in my veins ran wild, a mixture of fear, excitement and immense joy. I was about to join a protest against the Chinese government. 

I had never dared to dream of this day until now. Growing up in Shanghai, rallying or speaking out against the government was an unimaginable, treasonous act. Like most people in China, my freedom was limited. I could not have Twitter, Facebook or read The New York Times. All the media I consumed came from the heavily censored internet. In school, I memorized Marxist theories, Mao Zedong quotes, and sang the national anthem every Monday morning under the Communist flag. Like most people in China, I endured oppression in silence. Behind the collective obedience was an unspoken even unconscious fear of an absolute authority. The China I grew up in was a nation in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, where student protests were crushed violently by the military in 1989. After all, how could you imagine rebelling when tanks had rolled over young Chinese bodies just over a few decades ago? They said Chinese people had knelt for so long, we forgot how to stand.

Until now. 

On Nov. 24, a high-rise fire lit up the night sky in Ürümqi, Xinjiang. The city had been under strict lockdown for more than three months. Firefighters took three hours to put out the fire due to excessive COVID measures — doors were welded shut, fire escapes blocked, exits locked with chains. Nine people were injured in the fire, and 10 perished — among them were a mother and her four youngest children. 

The incident triggered nationwide protests. From Shanghai to Guangzhou, Nanjing to Beijing, people took to the streets holding blank pieces of paper — the police can’t arrest you for illegal speech if you say nothing. After three years of China’s Draconian “zero-COVID” policy, the public outrage was long overdue. The government held the extreme power to decide when or where to shutdown. As the enforcement of COVID-19 prevention got worse, people were dragged off to inhumane quarantine facilities by the police; pets were beaten or starved to death in empty homes; non-COVID-19 patients were refused medical attention. Many died at the hospital doors. The virus only caused a minimal amount of deaths, but the reports of deaths caused by COVID-19 prevention in China were ironically chilling. My own family was confined indoors for over three months, not allowed one step outside. 

Finally, the fire in Ürümqi was the last straw. In my hometown of Shanghai, Wulumuqi Road — the street I once strolled through in childhood, named after the city of Urumqi — was flooded by brave young voices demanding accountability. 

“No more COVID tests! No more lockdowns! We want freedom!”

Some even chanted, “Xi Jinping, Step Down; Communist Party, Step Down!”

The forbidden words I had thought about in secret a million times were now being chanted loudly and publicly in my hometown. Many of these people were beaten and detained by the police, including a BBC journalist, Edward Lawrence. Despite the extraordinary danger, people returned to the streets the next day anyway. 

Across the Atlantic Ocean, I was awestruck by the bravery of my people. I could not sit idly as students my age were risking their lives and future for the liberation of our country. On Tuesday, Nov. 29, hundreds of people gathered in front of the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China to stand in solidarity with our siblings back home. As a part of the volunteer organizing committee, I handed out 200 flyers with our demands printed on them.

“Allow public vigils. End brutal lockdowns. Release protesters. Protect human rights.”

These four simple demands took us three years to articulate, but better late than never. Some of the protesters were Uyghur Muslims who had been living in exile for decades, with family members still in the Xinjiang concentration camps. Some were LGBTQ+ individuals who had long been made invisible and silenced in China. Some were artists, chanting “I want to watch movies!” to demand freedom of the arts. For the first time since 1989, the Chinese people came together from all across the diaspora for one common reason: to end tyranny. While we remained an ethnically and politically diverse group, our voices became one in the fight against oppression. The overwhelming unity and courage I felt in the crowd that night brought tears to my eyes. 

In the crisp winter winds of New York, I knew our voices would reach the motherland. Three years. We have had enough. We were the burning children; we were the incarcerated Uyghurs; we were the political prisoners; we were the sweatshop workers. On the other side of the world, I could hear the oppressors trembling with fear. The tanks could not crush us, the chains could not confine us.

“We are the Chinese people! Long live the people! Long live freedom!” 

The blank paper says everything.

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