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Vigil and protest: dissent against Chinese dictatorship on campus

Photo of the vigil by Staff Writer.


This past week, two commemorations took place on campus to memorialize those who lost their lives due to China’s Zero COVID policy, and to demand greater civil liberties and an end to one party rule in the country. The events were attended by both domestic and international students on Nov. 29 and Dec. 1. 

The two demonstrations took place as part of a global protest movement sparked by a fire in the city of Ürümqi, China that killed ten people because of a heavily enforced quarantine policy. Many protesters said that the deaths could have been prevented if it were not for the Zero COVID policy. 

The first event was a vigil that took place under the Overpass to the South 40 on Nov. 29. More than 50 students came together in silence to pay respect for those who passed away in the fire. Almost all wore masks to protect their identities, out of fear that the Chinese government might retaliate against dissent.

Organizers of the event lit candles, and participants left bundles of flowers in honor of those who passed away. Some put up posters with political demands and slogans similar to the ones being made by protestors in China — an end to unrelenting quarantine, political persecution, and suppression of freedom of speech.

An international student from Beijing described what he has witnessed back home since the start of COVID. This student, and others quoted in the piece, will remain anonymous to protect against potential retaliation from the Chinese government. 

“These [Zero COVID] policies have been in place for three years,” the student said. “They have caused so many businesses and people to die, and more people [have committed] suicides because of [these policies] rather than dying from the virus.”

He said he was proud to see the protest movement take off following prolonged periods of hesitation and acquiescence to the status quo in China.

A Taiwanese Ph.D. candidate similarly said that she was touched seeing Chinese citizens finally take action, and she expressed hope that China would eventually become democratic.

“Even though the politics across the Taiwan Strait has been very antagonistic, it is my wish that China can give up its [Zero COVID] policy and give some normality back to the people,” she said. 

Other non-Chinese, international students felt a sense of camaraderie at the event. A student from Turkey said that “because we are more connected to home, we are more aware of what is going on overseas.” 

“As a Turkish person, I do relate to the experiences of Uyghurs in China,” the student added. “It’s very easy to disregard this because this is not near me, but just giving them my emotional support here as a fellow WashU student is essential.”

The second event took place on the Bear’s Den Patio, decorated with flowers and candles. Student attendees held the same symbols found in China throughout the protest.

The most powerful symbol for the movement so far has been a simple sheet of A4 paper. Xiao Qiang, a researcher from U.C. Berkeley, was interviewed by The New York Times and explained that people have a common message to express that the authorities know all too well: “If you hold a blank sheet, then everyone knows what you mean.”

Online censorship inside the country usually deletes any controversial comments and leaves a blank webpage that has since become synonymous with the blank sheet of paper.

Another key symbol is a picture of the signage for “Ürümqi Road” in blue and white, printed in Chinese and English. People in Shanghai have protested on this street to connect with the city where the fire took place. In response, Chinese authorities took the signage away, an action that was viewed as a national farce by protesters. 

After moments of tranquility reserved for the deceased, students began to muster the courage to chant songs and voice their demands. Protestors sung “L’Internationale” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” to show support for the movement.  

One student commenced by saying the popular “Four Demands” that Chinese nationals worldwide are advancing: to allow public vigil for those deceased, to end brutal lockdowns and Zero COVID policy, to release protestors defending fundamental civil liberties, and to protect human rights at large.

The “Four Demands” drew inspiration from the “Five Demands” of Hong Kong protestors in the Anti-Extradition Movement in 2019. “Glory to Hong Kong,” the Cantonese theme song for the movement, was also played publicly as a tribute, further emphasizing how this movement is impacting all of China. 

Others at the venue recited verbatim rights reserved to the people and protected by the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China: the freedom of speech, of publication, of assembly, of protest, and of demonstration.

Impassioned chants from the participants intensified afterward, calling the incumbent and the Party to step down for their failures and crimes against humanity.

A Ph.D. candidate studying law at the University expressed her support for the actions of international students. 

“This is something we all need to show up for,” she said.

Another Ph.D. candidate from Beijing quoted a popular saying back home.

“To be and stay present for each other, even from afar,” he said.

Cities in the Sinosphere have the custom of naming their streets after other cities, which the Ph.D. candidate said resonated with this moment.

“Just like these cities staying conscious of the presence of each other, even from afar, we have to stay together and unite, so that our voice, in aggregate, can be spread across the world and let the world know what is happening inside China,” he said.


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