Hundreds gather at Fence to mourn Urumqi victims, protest China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy
The Tartan granted full or partial anonymity to the people we interviewed to protect them and their families.
On Friday night, roughly 300 Carnegie Mellon and Pitt students gathered at the Fence to mourn the 10 people killed by an apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang. They also protested China’s strict Covid policies and human rights abuses. For most students, this was their first protest.
Organizing on eggshells
On Monday, a Carnegie Mellon student began a Telegram group chat to protest the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They shared poster ideas, printed copies, and posted them around campus. By Friday, the chat had 172 members.
According to a Carnegie Mellon sophomore from Ningbo who helped organize, the group chat was a compromise. Everyone’s identities were hidden, but that also meant there was no screening process.
“There is a spy in our group,” said Haoxun, a Pitt graduate student from Chongqing. He was in the Telegram group and helped organize efforts to paint the Fence the day before the gathering.
Around 20 students painted the Fence at midnight on Thursday. A Carnegie Mellon undergraduate from a city in southern China near Wuhan said that everyone met each other for the first time that night, but it felt like they already knew each other. One student brought a heater to shield others from the 30-degree weather.
The sophomore from Ningbo said he was the last to leave the Fence and sent the Telegram group a picture at around 2:35 a.m. Design slogans included: “End Brutal Lockdown,” “Release Protestors,” and “Stop the Genocide.” When a student came to retrieve her heater less than an hour later, she saw that the Fence had been defaced.
Someone had painted “shit” over “genocide.” They also painted Chinese characters in black paint which, according to the original painters, used “derogatory and insulting terms to refer to the people behind the protest.”
The Graduate Student Association and Undergraduate Student Senate condemned the vandalism on Friday afternoon. “We express our unequivocal support for the students who painted the Fence,” they wrote to Carnegie Mellon students, “and we denounce in the strongest possible terms the act of intimidation and harassment against them.” They added that the vandalism violated the Student Government’s Graffiti and Poster Policy.
The vandalism did not deter protesters, who attended in numbers twice as high as organizers expected. Roughly 15 people spoke, much more than the five who anonymously expressed interest to be a speaker in the Telegram group.
“We don’t want to be slaves,” protesters shouted in Chinese. “We want to be citizens.” In October, a man hung a banner with the slogan over a Beijing overpass. Authorities immediately detained the man, quickly removed the banner, and wiped the internet of posts that included “bridge” and “Beijing” within hours. But the banner galvanized Chinese protesters at home and abroad. Protests erupted on hundreds of college campuses. Carnegie Mellon students mimicked the banner in an October Fence design.
Despite unprecedented activism — China hasn’t seen large-scale protests since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 — protesters are cautious. Posters for Friday’s gathering recommended students wear masks and dark clothing to obscure their identities. Many students who spoke with The Tartan were worried that family members in China would be punished if the government discovered that they participated in the protest.
Recent reports claim that China has “overseas police stations” that they use to surveil and police their citizens outside the country.
In an email to The Tartan, one organizer explained that Chinese students may not face repercussions because they are in Pittsburgh, but their families could be punished if the students are identified. The organizer wrote that students risk being “antagonized by other Chinese students who are pro-CCP. The offensive language written in the vandalism is an example of that. It takes a lot of courage for us to attend the event today and express our voices.”
Strained communication, stumbling toward community
Security concerns made it hard for students to organize but so did the lack of protest infrastructure. Afraid of police brutality, protests in China have been reserved, tense, and unofficially organized.
Pittsburgh students expressed similar experiences. “There aren’t a group of organizers, there are people who support,” the student from Ningbo said.
The Carnegie Mellon student from southern China launched the Telegram chat, reported the Fence vandalism, and spearheaded organizing efforts. But she hadn’t wanted to be as front-facing as she was during the gathering.
She thought that someone would volunteer to take charge on Friday night, she told The Tartan. While many people offered to speak for a few minutes, no one took the mantle. “Everyone was nervous,” she said.
Someone brought candles and flowers on Friday. Another person made pamphlets, but it was unclear who would distribute them until people arrived at Friday’s gathering and volunteered. Haoxun spent $160 on paint and brushes for the Fence. At Friday’s gathering, students gave him small monetary donations to help cover the cost.
While some students in the Telegram group said organizing felt touch and go, they also described a growing sense of community.
The student from southern China said that, while students have to be careful about what they say (“You don’t know if the person you’re talking to will report you”), she wants a place where students can speak freely. She thinks the Telegram group could do this with more gatherings like the one on Friday.
Many Chinese international students told The Tartan that they did not plan to tell their parents that they attended the protest.
Richard, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student from Shangdong, said it wasn’t safe to talk about protests and he didn’t want his parents to worry. Ryan, a Pitt undergraduate from Shanghai, said he never discusses politics with his parents. If he wants to post about “sensitive topics,” he said that Twitter, Reddit, and Telegram are his platforms of choice.
Ryan said that when he lived in China he used U.S. social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube to get news. He just didn’t talk about it unless he is with his closest friends. The CCP heavily censors Chinese media platforms.
Haoxun said that he communicates with his family through WeChat, but after sharing videos of Chinese protesters with them, his account was suspended for 16 days. “My parents always warned me of this,” he told The Tartan. Haoxun made a new account which he is using until he regains access to his old one.
While Haoxun has tried to inform his parents about protests, he said he cannot tell them about his own involvement. He said his cousin attended protests in Chengdu and left his phone in his car to dupe police about his location. Haoxun taught his cousin how to use a VPN and told The Tartan that they only discuss politics using a VPN and Telegram.
Hyper-surveillance, strict censorship, travel restraints, historical erasure, unexplained disappearances, and mass incarceration are policies many citizens want to protest, but they are also the policies that keep mass protests off the streets. After three years of harsh pandemic restrictions, some citizens are at a breaking point.
On Nov. 24, a fire killed at least 10 people in a Urumqi apartment building. People speculated that a Covid lockdown made it harder for residents to flee and for rescue services to arrive.
China is maintaining its “zero Covid” policy, enforcing neighborhood-wide lockdowns and mandated stays in quarantine centers for close contacts. Despite these efforts, the country’s case count recently hit record highs.
The “zero Covid” policy has caused food shortages, set back the economy, and exacerbated China’s mental health crisis.
“We were forced to stay in our houses and could not step out,” said Ryan, the student from Shanghai. He remembered government officials dropping off mandated Covid tests multiple times a week.
“In the U.S., it’s just Covid,” Ryan told The Tartan. “In China, you’re in lockdown.” The U.S. reported the highest Covid incidence rate in the world.
Ryan said neighborhoods in China could be “sent away to quarantine hospitals that are built up temporarily. It’s killing people.” He said people seeking other medical care are refused because of Covid restrictions, and it has cost some their lives.
One Carnegie Mellon graduate student said he came to the gathering “in memory of people who died from the pandemic. Not just the virus but the ‘zero Covid’ policy in general.”
Chinese officials eased Covid restrictions this week in response to unprecedented protests.
“I want to support my people,” said Henry, a Chinese international student at Pitt. He said the Friday gathering was his first protest.
Lin, a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate from Shanghai, lived in lockdown for three months this year and heard that government workers entered houses, sanitized furniture, and damaged families’ belongings. She said there were protests in the neighborhood next to hers, but “people aren’t even protesting very aggressively. They’re mild.”
A student speaker said that he didn’t think protesters could demand that Xi Jinping step down, but wanted to “leave a record for history” that Chinese citizens condemn their country’s policies. Another student said he wanted looser pandemic restrictions but did not want government leadership to change and did not believe that the CCP was indoctrinating Uyghurs.
Lin said that she did not know about many CCP abuses — including the severity of Uyghur internment camps — until the recent protests.
The Urumqi fire took place in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in China home to many ethnic minorities, including Uyghur Muslims. Reports say that China began its crackdown on Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in 2014.
Uyghurs cannot have passports and risk internment if they are caught with one. The birth rate in the region has plummeted and at least one million Uyghurs have been detained.
Yalkun, a research associate at Pitt from Xinjiang, held a sign protesting the internment of Uyghurs, including his family members. Uyghurs who still live in the province risk detainment if they communicate with people abroad. Before cutting communication with him, Yalkun’s niece told him, “You understand, I am going to kick you out of my contacts.” Yalkun told her he understood. They have not spoken in years.
Kalbi, who is married to Yalkun, has two cousins who were detained. The family has not heard from either since their internment two years ago. Kalbi said there was no political reason for them to be detained. The older cousin, 48, was a news reporter. The younger cousin, 38, wrote something when he was in fifth grade that was published in a kids’ journal that was used to justify his internment.
Sal, who attended the protest with the couple, said he has not spoken to his grandmother in five years. She is from Xinjiang and cut communication when the government began its crackdown on Uyghur Muslims. “She could be in a concentration camp,” he told The Tartan.
Growing activism on campus
In November, it took four people until 4:30 a.m. to paint the Fence in protest of China’s “zero Covid” policy. According to the student from Ningbo, who did not paint that Fence but knew about their efforts from the Telegram group, “There weren’t any organized protests in China. It didn’t occur to us that we should gather together.”
Rain streaked the design, obscuring some of the characters. A student misinterpreted the blurred message and painted over part of the design, thinking that it was anti-protests. After realizing that the Fence design supported protests, the student apologized.
Carnegie Mellon has a reputation of being an apolitical campus, which was another barrier to organizing. But some students have been criticizing the CCP all semester, including four Fence designs protesting the government’s brutality.
During his interview with The Tartan, Ryan walked through the reasons why and lengths he’d go to not to return to China. “I have no choice but to be hopeful about these protests,” he said. “I’m not trying to sound like a refugee, but maybe I am.” Friday’s gathering gave him a space to weigh that feeling.
As students left the gathering, one shouted to organizers, “We are not alone, thanks to you.”