Amid Arrests, A4 Protesters Show Resolve, Seek Solidarity Abroad

In the month since China erupted in a series of nationwide public protests, incited by a deadly fire in Urumqi and fueled by anger towards harsh “zero-COVID” policies, those involved in the protest movement have taken stock of their progress and setbacks. The CCP has silently retaliated against many who took part in the demonstrations, but the rare opportunity for collective action has already inspired new forms of political consciousness that transcend domestic and international borders. 

Within China, the government has leveraged its sophisticated surveillance apparatus to identify and detain many individuals who participated in the protests. AFP reported that one protester in Guangzhou was detained for at least nine days, with one lawyer stating that at least six other protesters in two cities had been held for a week or longer. “Now that it has been proven that excessive pandemic prevention was a mistake, and since the country has abandoned its ‘zero-COVID’ policy, these young people should be allowed to return to their homes,” a Guangzhou-based lawyer told NGOCN. “Everyone should know that these young people who were arrested are the most cherished part of our country.” Eva Rammeloo from TIME shared the stories of several protesters who were maltreated in detention:

It is not known exactly how many people were arrested. But protesters who were released tell TIME stories of their ordeal. “They pushed me against a police car, pulled me down on the street, and hurt my head,” says Chun, 27, who was rounded up with dozens of other protesters during and following the demonstration. He adds that they were strapped to chairs with their wrists and ankles tied, and that cigarette butts and bottles were thrown at them. In a Nov. 29 statement, the government said it would “resolutely crack down” on “activities by hostile forces.”

Chun says that officers demanded they strip naked and police taunted them with humiliating remarks. “When someone mentioned basic human rights, the police took it as a joke,” adds Jin, 21, who was also arrested following the vigil. Both say that most who were detained alongside them were held for over 24 hours in rooms that were too small to lay down in. The lights were also left on all night, making it impossible to sleep, Chun and Jin say.

[…] Sitting in her family’s living room in early December, Xia resolutely shakes her head when asked if she would go and protest on the street if they happen again. “Much too dangerous,” she says. [Source]

The Economist described the government’s crackdown on those sharing information about the protests online, and their resolve to persist

Chinese authorities are using more intrusive methods that span the digital and physical worlds. Police have searched handsets for banned apps or protest-related images and contacted protesters identified via mobile-phone location data. Teacher Li [who played a pivotal role by sharing videos of the protests on Twitter] says police have visited his parents in China several times, presenting them with a list of his tweets as “criminal evidence” and threatening to block them from sending him money. “The psychological pressure is great,” he says. “But this account isn’t just about our family. It’s about the well-being of countless Chinese people. So I won’t stop.” [Source]

Now that the government has abandoned its longstanding “zero-COVID” policies, protesters and other citizens are eager to hold officials accountable. “[B]eneath the relief is a collective and profound trauma that will not be easy to heal. Gripped with grief, anxiety and depression, people want a national reckoning of what went wrong,” wrote New York Times columnist Li Yuan. “Everybody I talked to believes that the government should apologize, but no one expects it will.” Despite widespread comparisons to the 1989 anti-government protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere, the current movement faces a regime under Xi Jinping whose leadership personnel are less openly divided than those thirty years ago, leaving fewer political opportunities for protesters to exploit. However, as Orville Schell wrote in Foreign Affairs, the A4 revolution (so named because many protesters displayed blank sheets of A4 paper rather than written protest signs) has shattered the illusion of government control:

To hear voices calling for Xi and the CCP to step down suggests that an elusive but important psychological line may have been crossed. But Xi is not a leader who accepts lèse majesté easily, and he will most certainly take umbrage and seek retribution.

[…T]he events that have been playing out reveal that just underneath the crust of order maintained by the CCP, there is a molten core of alienation. Totalitarian control mechanisms may have prevented people from openly expressing their outrage, but they have not prevented anger from quietly pooling up beneath the seemingly orderly surface. And historically, when such pressure has become too great, this molten core has erupted in surprising ways. [Source]

Protesters outside of China continue to keep the movement alive, despite the dangers of speaking out publicly. Last week, a U.S. federal court arrested and charged a Chinese student accused of harassing a Chinese activist who posted a pro-democracy flier on their college campus. “I will chop your bastard hand off […] I already called the tipoff line in the country, the public security agency will go greet your family,” the accused harasser wrote in a WeChat group. But as an anonymous special correspondent reported in Foreign Policy, Chinese students in the diaspora remain motivated to sustain the movement

“It feels wrong not to show up,” Zhu, a public health student from Shanghai, told Foreign Policy later. “I have the privilege to live a comfortable life here in the U.S., while people back home are dying from zero-COVID policies.”

[…] While protesters abroad still face significant risks that forbid them to speak more openly, the recent protests have offered a sense of hope for many.

“If we build a stronger diaspora community,” Ava said, “we can try to support the domestic resistance better.” [Source]

Protests outside of China occurred in over 20 cities around the world. In ChinaFile, Yangyang Chen described the Chinese diaspora’s political awakening and visions of a different homeland:

Removed from the immediate demands of COVID restrictions and out of the iron grip of the home government, the mostly spontaneous remarks at overseas Chinese rallies have been a search for language: to contend with the legacies of empire that haunt the borderlands, to wrestle one’s national identity from the monopolizing powers of the state, to seize cultural symbols not yet claimed by the ruling party, and to uncover political expression for visions of a different China. At the vigil I attended, a few recited verses by contemporary Chinese poets. One quoted Mencius on the people’s right to topple tyranny. Another, in a passionate vilification of Xi’s one-man reign, spoke in a mixture of Mandarin and English. The lack of polish or preparedness was not a mark of weakness but a sign of potential. For many Chinese youths, this past week has been a moment of political awakening. A taboo is broken. A muffled tongue ventures its first cry. Vocabulary and fluency will take time. [Source]

One new development among Chinese diaspora mobilizations has been a gradual public reckoning with the Uyghur struggle. In the early days of the protests, Uyghur activists criticized the limited recognition of the Uyghurs in Han Chinese-led protests against the CCP’s political repression. As time went on, some activist groups endeavored to center marginalized groups in their demonstrations and organized panel discussions exploring the potential for greater solidarity between Han Chinese and Uyghurs. While there is still a long way to go, Rachel Cheung, writing for VICE World News, described the promising initial steps that overseas Chinese students are taking to support Uyghurs and other groups repressed by the CCP:

“Having relatively more freedom and resources, we are able to know what happened to Uyghur people,” one of the Chinese students [from the group Not Your Little Pink] that raised the proposal [to end Xinjiang internment camps] told VICE World News, speaking anonymously to avoid retaliation. The student stressed the need for overseas Chinese nationals to address China’s repression of Uyghurs, given the privilege and freedom they have, but also noted that it is not an easy task.  

“They’re going through the process of unlearning everything they were taught when they were back in China,” they said. “Especially for folks that just arrived, they show a lot more resistance and hesitation in engaging in ‘sensitive issues’ about China, because what they were taught were so different.” 

As a result of these efforts, [U.S.-based Chinese human rights activist Zhu Xun] said many protesters, who are starting to become politically aware, are also confronting the issue for the first time. “Many are just beginners taking baby steps,” Zhu said. 

[…] “Ultimately, social movements can’t create qualitative changes. It requires community organizing, mutual engagement and dialogue over a long period,” Zhu said. “This is just the beginning.” [Source]


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