They came wearing black masks and glasses. Low-brimmed caps shadowed their faces. Their clothing was generic and unidentifiable. Some held candles; others, blank sheets of letter paper.
Over the past few weeks, dozens of Wellesley students have arrived in Boston to protest the ongoing zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy in China. Most were international students or students of Chinese descent who felt obligated to stand in solidarity with protestors in mainland China, where huge demonstrations have erupted through Chinese cities over the past two weeks calling for an end to the zero-COVID policy, more political freedom and an end to what many consider authoritarian one-man rule. The protests, known collectively as the A4 Revolution or White Paper Protests, are named after the blank signs and sheets of white A4 paper carried by protestors as a symbol of government censorship.
On Dec. 2, a candlelight vigil was held at the Tiananmen Memorial at Chinatown to honor victims of the Ürümqi fire, where at least ten victims of Uyghur descent, including a three-year-old child, had died in a fire at a residential highrise in Ürümqi, Xinjiang on Nov. 24. Anger sparked in China after it was believed that the government’s zero-COVID policy had prevented residents from escaping the burning building and hampered rescue efforts.
At the vigil, protestors chanted for Xi Jinping to step down, the government to free Hong Kong and Tibet and to end the practice of forcibly imprisoning citizens of Uyghur ethnicity in concentration camps. Many repeated words from the Sitong Bridge protest, a one-man demonstration on Oct. 13 where a man erected a banner demanding food, freedom, dignity, reform and elections. Though the man was arrested and his identity never released, he became a martyr for the zero-COVID movement. In late October, posters critical of the Chinese government were posted across Wellesley College featuring the text from his banner, including several on the front door of the Lulu Chow Wang student center. They were later removed as a violation of the College’s spam policy.
Wendy*, a Wellesley College student, said that she had not told her parents about her presence at the protest because she knew they would fear for her safety. Another one of her friends had already been talked out of attending by their father, and ended up staying behind at the last minute.
“The only reason that I [felt brave enough to go was because I] had friends who went with me. I would not have gone if I was going alone,” Wendy, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “I wanted to show myself and other people that I care. I think realistically that I, as an individual, with my background, can’t do anything or change anything. But going there is a chance for me to hear other people’s voices and show solidarity.”
For international students who still have family and loved ones in China, protesting is a high risk. In China, one-time protestors have been traced to protests by their phone GPS data and confronted at their homes by police warning them not to “engage in anti-governmental activities”; repeat offenders face fines and jail time. One of Wendy’s friends feared that if her identity was leaked, her parents would face consequences and she would be unable to return home.
But even Chinese American students like Wanda*, who went to a smaller protest at Harvard University on Nov. 29, stated that they did not feel comfortable revealing their identities at the protest. Although most of Wanda’s immediate family is in the US, they still felt scared that their actions would compromise any ability to visit China in the future.
“Most Chinese Americans feel that they are in between two cultures. Even though I’m an American, I still feel a connection to [China] because of my heritage,” Wanda stated. “I feel like it’s my duty to make sure that China is a better place.”
Four days after the protest, a newspaper published pictures of the vigil. One of Wendy’s friends, who had attended the event with her, pointed out one picture where the group could be seen in the background.
“I felt unsafe,” Wendy said, even though it was far too blurry to make out any of her identifiable features. “During the vigil, the flash was making me uncomfortable. People were holding cameras with mics and filming our faces.”
Despite her nervousness, however, Wendy did not regret attending the protest.
“I’m glad I went, because I saw hope in the solidarity that was being demonstrated,” Wendy said, “but there’s still a long way to go.”
* indicates anonymity.