China’s Anti-lockdown Protests and the Quest for Inter-ethnic Solidarity

Last week’s lethal fire in Urumqi, whose death toll is widely believed to have been exacerbated by the government’s pandemic control policies, set off a nationwide wave of mourning gatherings and anti-lockdown protests. Western attention has frequently focused on the “unprecedented” manifestation of these protests in eastern seaboard cities such as Shanghai, where some citizens shouted political slogans calling for Xi Jinping to step down. But elsewhere, particularly on social media, activists have traced the complex racial dynamics of the protests, linking the demonstrations in majority-Han Chinese mainland cities to their proximate cause in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. While there are signs of new inter-ethnic solidarity, some Uyghurs and activists have criticized the limited nature of political demands that omit recognition of the unique oppression against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

In a ChinaFile conversation, James Millward highlighted the pan-ethnic features of the protests

The connection to Xinjiang, where the lockdown has continued longer but with less attention than anywhere else, is one of the most extraordinary things about the current protests. […T]hey are also pan-ethnic, and that too is rare. It is telling that after the first night of Shanghai protests, authorities took down the Urumchi Road sign around which protesters had congregated. The Chinese Communist Party is attempting to erase “Urumchi” from Shanghai geography just as it has tried to erase so much Uyghur culture from Xinjiang. This is a symbolic connection that the authorities want to sever: Solidarity between Han and Uyghur is frightening for the Party. [Source]

One Uyghur exile in California, with family members in Xinjiang concentration camps and under COVID lockdown in Urumqi, expressed appreciation for Han Chinese support. “This is a breaking point. They’re recognizing that the government is suppressing them as well.” He said they are recognizing that everyone, regardless of ethnicity, is “all the same thing in front of the Chinese Communist Party.” Austin Ramzy and Wenxin Fan from The Wall Street Journal reported that policing techniques long used against Uyghurs in Xinjiang are now being deployed against Han Chinese in mainland cities:

In maintaining the lockdowns in Xinjiang, local authorities have been able to rely on the country’s most advanced and suffocating security apparatus, originally built to carry out a campaign of ethnic re-engineering against the region’s 14 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.

[…“A]fter the fire, they realized that Uyghurs today would be the Chinese tomorrow,” said [Merhaba Muhammad, a Uyghur exile whose family members died in the Urumqi fire, describing Han Chinese protesters].

Police have targeted protest participants by using some of the surveillance techniques honed in Xinjiang to target Uyghurs. In chat rooms used to organize demonstrations, protesters have reported police scanning the smartphones of pedestrians for overseas apps such as Twitter and Telegram, a common experience on the streets of Urumqi.

A lawyer representing more than a dozen protesters taken by police said she believes many of her clients were tracked through mobile-phone data, another echo of the Uyghur experience in Xinjiang. [Source]

However, there may be limits to pan-ethnic unity. In The Conversation, Jo Smith Finley described past and present shortcomings of interethnic solidarity:

The protests following the fire have given Han Chinese citizens a new sense of solidarity with those who died in the “Auspicious Court” (Jixiangyuan) community in Ürümchi. The shared restrictions amid unjustified levels of zero-COVID surveillance and associated restrictions on their freedom were finally relatable. Both were “casualties of authoritarian excess”.

[…] Yet, until now, how far had the average Han citizen considered themselves to have much in common with the Uyghurs? The answer is very little. This was reflected in the hurt and incomprehension expressed by Uyghur Twitter users in response to the Han reaction. As one noted: “If [a] Uyghur protests, the Chinese government calls us terrorists, extremists, and separatists, and the Han Chinese netizens believe that.”

Another wrote: “If you feel pain, it means you are alive. But if you feel other people’s pain, only then are you a human being.” It was Uyghur, not Han, netizens who posted images of the Uyghur victims of the fire, and of doors bolted shut from the outside. [Source]

In The Nation, Rebecca E. Karl argued that privileged protesters, most of them Han Chinese, have benefitted from a system of oppression against more vulnerable groups, and they are only now protesting because that system has become intolerable for them: 

[B]outs of collective but localized unrest are endemic, but have mostly bypassed urban petty bourgeois and capitalist classes, who have benefited from the systems of oppression upon which their comfortable lives have been fashioned. Over the almost three years of the pandemic, the increasing disruption of those lives has now registered as intolerable.

[…] What we are seeing now is brave urban folks, from all walks of life, coming out of their homes to contest the conditions of their surveilled, over-tested, and locked-down lives. They perhaps have not linked their difficulties to the lives of their poorer more exploited compatriots […;] in fact, it is a fair bet that many have not. [Source]

For CNN, Rebecca Wright, Ivan Watson, and Enwer Erdem relayed the views of one Uyghur—whose father and brother are in Xinjiang concentration camps and whose mother and four siblings died in the Urumqi fire—who believes that Han Chinese are protesting for their own rights and not those of Uyghurs:

Sharapat [Mohamad Ali] and others also believe the ethnicity of the victims played a part in their deaths. While China has used similar lockdown strategies in other parts of the country – with videos circulating on social media showing people being locked into their homes by welded bars and metal wires – they feel the lockdown in Urumqi has been unusually severe. They also believe that had the fire not been in a Uyghur neighborhood the rescue efforts would have been more swift.

[…] After the fire in Urumqi, Han Chinese from across the country took part in vigils held for the victims. But for many members of the Uyghur population, traumatized by years of brutality and oppression, this was a show of solidarity that came too little, too late.

“I don’t think that the Chinese people are protesting for us,” Abdul Hafiz said. “They are doing it for their own interests.”

“Since 2016, millions of people were detained in camps,” Hafiz said. “At that time, they did not stand up, they did not help, and they even denied it.” [Source]

Many Uyghurs and human rights groups argue that repression under the Chinese government’s pandemic-control policies falls disproportionately on Uyghurs. As the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project stated, “[T]he Chinese government’s COVID policy is used specially to target and control Uyghurs,” referencing the over-three-month lockdown in Xinjiang and numerous Uyghurs who reportedly starved to death under lockdown in Ghulja. The Urumqi fire and government response “is part of an ongoing pattern of mass detention, genocide, and displacement of Uyghurs,” wrote the Dove & Crane Collective. 

Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin, a Uyghur exile whose family members died in Urumqi, told AFP,  “If Uyghurs protested, [the Chinese government] would choke them dead,” referencing reports that the protests, even in Urumqi, were attended mostly by Han Chinese. Merhaba Muhammad, another Uyghur exile whose family members died in the fire, decried the government’s double standards: “China’s government didn’t try to save us as we are Uyghur people. They didn’t care. […] If this happened in another city of the Chinese people, they would try to do something.” When asked by RFA what kind of response they would like from the international community regarding the fire, Muhammed Memeteli, also a family member of the victims, simply wanted to know the whereabouts of his other relatives: “I don’t even know if my father is dead or alive. Are my other brothers [who lived in the apartment] alive? Were they in the building when it caught fire? I have no idea about them either.” He and his sister cannot even attend the funeral for the family members who are confirmed to have died, he said, since they would likely be detained and tortured if they returned home.

Uyghurs and others have called on Han Chinese protesters to recognize the disproportionate impact of government repression against Uyghurs. Aidi Ali, a Uyghur exile attending a protest in Melbourne, told the ABC: “I just hope in the future they will still remember the difficult past of our Uyghurs. […] Because of this pandemic, you’ve been experiencing this awful treatment from the government for the last three years. But we’ve had this treatment for 70 years.” Stella Hong Zhang tweeted: “While Chinese protesters use such phrases as ‘we are all Xinjiangers’ or ‘compatriots’ in a well-intended way, it could also contribute to downplaying the sufferings specific to the Uyghur population.” Sheena Goodyear at CBC spoke with Uyghur exile Abdulhafiz Maimaitimin, whose family members died in the Urumqi fire, and who urged people to understand the connection to the Uyghur genocide:

Maimaitimin says the protests are not about solidarity with Uyghurs.

“The Chinese people … feel an anxiety because of this lockdown. And the day after this fire accident, they may also think that the same thing would also happen to them,” he said.

But, as far as he’s concerned, the fire was the direct result of China’s mistreatment of his people. 

“I want [people] to understand this accident itself is also a part of the Uyghur genocide,” he said. [Source]

Battling continued repression, “Uyghur communities across the world have been doing everything to raise the voice of our voiceless people,” said Uyghur activist Tahir Imin at a candlelight vigil in Washington, D.C. on Monday. On Wednesday, outside the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, Uyghurs protested the Chinese government’s pandemic-control policies, and local police threatened to deport them. One Uyghur woman was detained by Urumqi police for posting “false information” about the death toll of the fire, which Uyghur groups state includes dozens more than the government’s official tally. Charting a path towards demonstrating true solidarity, the Lausan Collective argued that it is crucial to center the struggle of Uyghurs in protests against the Chinese government’s repressive policies:

[…] Once again, the people of Xinjiang have had to bear the brunt of China’s repressive policies in the horrific Ürümchi fire. But now the region with some of the country’s most marginalized has become the spark for what is possibly the largest scale mobilization in Chinese society in years. More urgently than ever, Han Chinese residents of Xinjiang and in other regions of China must continue to center the struggle of Uyghurs and oppressed minorities and fight alongside them. [Source]

Building Han-Uyghur unity through this intersectional method is important for raising political consciousness and sustaining the protests, many activists and academics wrote on Twitter. As Sharon Yam summarized, “We stand together not because we share the same national identity, but because of our shared struggle. State-driven identitarian politics is the thing that gets us into this mess in the first place.” While many international protests this week among diaspora groups have struggled to find a cohesive, intersectional form, there have been some instances of promising solidarity. In New York, feminist and queer groups prioritized Uyghur voices in their protests. In Los Angeles, Han Chinese students acknowledged their complicity in the government’s genocidal policies against Uyghurs. A group of Chinese overseas students added a fifth demand to close Xinjiang concentration camps as part of their online mobilization. As Chenchen Zhang highlighted, the protests provide a valuable opportunity for civic education


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