China is the last major country in the world to stick with its “zero-COVID policy,” which consists of invasive digital contact tracing that traces people miles away and strict lockdowns, often involving violence and physical barriers. Days ago, a deadly fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, killed 10 residents — a number from Chinese officials — but many believe more were killed. That region has been in lockdown for more than 100 days. Despite officials’ denials, it was widely believed that the exit doors were locked due to the enforcement of lockdowns, which left residents with no options to evacuate the building. There are videos online showing residents desperately asking to remove the barricades used to block the doors. Furthermore, barriers were used on roads in the region to prevent people from leaving their homes, which blocked fire engines from approaching the burning buildings and made it impossible for water guns to reach the fire.
It is painfully obvious that such a tragedy is a policy choice. Most communities in China experienced lockdowns that were somewhat similar to Urumqi’s and, therefore, similar tragedies could befall nearly anyone in China. Since the University of Michigan has a fairly significant share of students coming from China (including myself) and many more who have connections to China via ancestry or friendships, it matters to all of us.
This sparked arguably the largest protest in mainland China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Thousands gathered on Shanghai’s Urumqi Road and many other places in and outside of China, demanding an end to lockdowns and a more moderate approach to COVID-19. But among them, there were also some who asked the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese President Xi Jinping — who just got his third term months ago, after abolishing China’s constitutional term limits in 2018 — to step down. Such protestors were met with police brutality, and will almost certainly face criminal charges if arrested.
Protesting in China takes great courage, which is why it is rare. “Inciting subversion of state power” is a crime in China, punishable by up to 15 years of imprisonment, and many prisoners who have committed such an offense have mysteriously died before or shortly after finishing their sentence. Family members of protesters also have to deal with the consequences, which can include being put under house arrest or being turned down for jobs.
The courage of protesters is admirable and is something we should all be inspired by and get involved in. It would be an utter shame for all of us if we did not do our part and their fight ended in vain, with mass incarceration and torture. The ideals they are fighting for — democracy, human rights and transparency in governance — are also the ideals of Americans, as well as all humans alike. A freer and more democratic China will be beneficial to both the Chinese and American people, from avoiding a new arms race to increased economic partnerships. Not to mention, China is also the biggest ally and financial sponsor of Russia, whose war caused enormous casualties and economic damage to people in and outside Ukraine. Xi Jinping’s ambitions extend far beyond the People’s Republic of China’s periphery, all the way from the self-ruled Taiwan to countries bordering the South China Sea. We must not let the tragedy of Urumqi expand elsewhere.
Again, the University has a fairly large number of Chinese students. While many of them are like me, who can do little more than write this article and raise awareness, some of them are from the families of Chinese economic and political elites, who have the leverage to influence the direction of the Chinese state. We also have an impact, significant or not, on the American government. While I am generally not a fan of America’s interventionist foreign policy, I do believe our awareness and fight here in America could translate into something meaningful on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
Following these protests, China has shifted away from its zero COVID-19 policy, which could be considered a partial success for the protesters. However, we must not forget the lives lost as a result of China’s public policy failures, which continue to occur on a daily basis due to China’s lack of preparation, from effective vaccination schemes to essential medical equipment.
That is why I urge you to stand with the protesters in China. Be their voice, attend a protest if possible and assist protesters in distributing our posters — whether physical or digital. Try to avoid buying Chinese products if you can because every tax dollar going to China’s bank account will help the Chinese state strengthen its empire. If you can talk to someone in power, like your representative, tell them your concerns. I stand with the Chinese protesters. I hope you can do the same.
The author of this Op-Ed requested anonymity for reasons related to safety of family members still residing in the People’s Republic of China. The Michigan Daily acquiesced to this request; the content of this piece has been verified by our team of editors.