Despite the cold of November, a large crowd of students gathered on the Diag Nov. 28 to honor the victims of a fire in an apartment building in China’s Xinjiang region on Nov. 24. Students heard speeches from fellow attendees and sought to stand not only in memorial, but also in solidarity with the most widespread protests in China since the student-led 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
The fire, which broke out during stringent lockdowns under China’s “Zero-COVID Policy,” killed 10 and injured nine. Residents and social media posts circulating online said that due to to the COVID-19 lockdown measure, those caught in the fire were unable to leave their homes. Local authorities in the city of Ürümqi repeatedly disputed these claims following the incident.
Organized by Chinese international students on campus, the vigil was one of the many protests held by university students across the country, including at the University of Southern California and New York University, in opposition to the Chinese government’s “Zero-COVID Policy.” Since then, U-M students have organized through the Telegram app to plan further protests and distribute fliers in solidarity with the movement.
One such student, a junior who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the Chinese government, shared their thoughts about the protest in an interview with The Michigan Daily. The student, who will be referred to as Sam, said they went to the event after seeing video of events from other protests.
“I was still trying to decide if I was going to go to the event, because… there is at least some risk involved,” Sam said. “But after seeing similar ones in other places around the world, I felt like it’s something I should participate in. It is my duty to represent this willingness to protest and to represent some of the demands pledged by recent Chinese protesters.”
LSA freshman Zilala Mamat, who was born in the city of Ürümqi, said she was motivated to go to the vigil because of her personal connections to the issue and her advocacy for Uyghur rights.
“I’m very passionate about human rights, I’m very involved in the human rights field, especially regarding the Uyghur crisis,” Mamat said. “This happening in my hometown is something that is very personal and intimate to me. That’s what motivated me to go to the vigil.”
The United States designated the Uyghur crisis as a genocide against the largely Turkic Muslim Uyghur minority population in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, which is referred to as East Turkistan by the Uyghur people.
Sam said the vigil was organized in part through a Telegram group chat created for international Chinese students a day before. Organizers chose Telegram, often used in protest movements around the world, because the service offers anonymity and security measures to protect messages. Sam said anonymity was the primary motivator for the organizers to use the service.
Those who helped organize the vigil participated by printing and distributing posters, something Sam said they personally helped with.
One attendee at the vigil, a student who transferred from a Chinese university who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the Chinese government, said they were happy to see the protests, both on campus and in China. The student, who will be referred to as Alex, said they attended the protest after seeing posters shared on social media.
“People were angry about Zero-COVID before this (fire) and I’m very happy to see that people finally have the courage to speak out about it,” Alex said. “I saw a video of people from my hometown (protesting). I cannot tell you how happy I was. I thought those kinds of protests no longer exist in China. I’m just so sad that it takes … so many years for this progress.”
As the students stood in silence for much of the time, some held signs, while others held candles. Mamat said the vigil was respectful, and that it was nice to see the support on campus for the victims of the Ürümqi fire as well as for protesters in China.
“It really showed how much people were starting to care about the situation, and kind of open their eyes to what was going on in China,” Mamat said. “So it was really nice to see everybody come together and show their support for something so terrible that happened, and I think it was really nice to just see how much support there was on campus.”
Following the event, Sam recalled some of the speeches given at the vigil, many of which were spoken in Chinese. Sam said one student spoke about how the vigil was an important step for people their age to take part in. According to Sam, the speaker also said the students gathered were putting themselves out there, and that it was a wake-up call for them.
In Chinese, Alex said in the aftermath of the vigil, they felt a renewed sense of community, despite the numbness they said they felt after learning of the various human rights violations in China.
“On that night, I felt I’m not alone,” Alex said. “I felt warmth, solidarity and a sense of community, and we (participants) continued to communicate with each other through Telegram after the vigil.”
Sam also said they felt reassured by the sense of community and that it’s a first step toward change.
“One of the most reassuring things I heard that day, before going to the protest, was my roommate (asking) me if I wanted to go as well,” Sam said. “So I know at least we align in our political opinions. I think that’s important to get people to start thinking and start taking that first step … to continue similar protests or affecting more changes.”
Mamat said she hopes that future protests organized on campus related to human rights in China will give a voice to Uyghur students and raise awareness of the Uyghur genocide occuring in Xinjiang. She said the Ürümqi fire is part of a much bigger issue relating to the Uyghur genocide.
“We’re always talking about ‘never again,’ and we’re always talking about how we need to open our eyes to issues before they get too big, but where is that now?” Mamat said. “‘Never again,’ but it’s literally happening now … I think we need to get more action out there, and so 100% (in) any protests going forward, we do need to include this Uyghur issue in what we do.”
The zero-COVID policy is a policy enacted in China in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mary Gallagher, director of the International Institute and expert on Chinese politics and society, said the zero-COVID policy was likely something that was initially necessary, but is now no longer needed.
“As the variants got more contagious, it became more and more difficult to keep track of it, and the measures that the government had to take to keep COVID in place became more and more severe,” Gallagher said. “So we’ve had lockdowns in the summer and in the spring of 2022. And since then, we’ve had lockdowns in many other cities.”
Gallagher said the zero-COVID policy should have evolved into a different approach that would work alongside expanded vaccination campaigns.
Gallagher also added that these recent protests in China have reignited efforts to spread information in historic waves of support.
“As someone who studied Chinese labor politics, I know there have been many local protests in the past,” Gallagher said. “But I think none of these have spread so widely, none of these would have called ‘习近平下台’ (Xi Jinping Step Down).”
Sam said they think it may be difficult for non-Chinese students to empathize with the protesters, but that students should try and see the protests from the perspective of the Chinese people and not from a Western perspective.
“(University of Michigan students) should try to see it from the angle of the Chinese people about … why they are doing this sort of protest and why (it hasn’t) been happening,” Sam said. “I think for many it may seem like the obvious thing to do: ‘Oh, there’s oppression, rise up and fight against it,’ but I think it’s also important to put it inside a Chinese context and understand how difficult it is to organize these sorts of events and how much risk those people are under.”
Mamat said she thinks students should better inform themselves on the protests and issues happening in China as a first step. She said students should educate themselves on the details of human rights abuses in China and not just be informed that they are occurring. She said students should become more active as a result.
“You have a voice, so use it,” Mamat said. “There’s been a lot of progress made because of people’s voices. There’s been legislation passed in the U.S Congress because of our consistent efforts advocating and spreading awareness … so whether that be joining protests, signing petitions or even contacting your local representatives, that has a very big impact.”
Daily Staff Reporter Joshua Nicholson can be reached at email@example.com.