Protest Songs: “Urumqi East,” “If You Won’t Take the Lead,” “Can’t Imagine What Your Pain Was Like,” “Down with Tyranny … No More Emperor Xi!”

The recent protests commemorating victims of the November 24 fire in Urumqi and criticizing harsh pandemic measures and repressive government policies employed a wide variety of protest-themed slogans, artwork, poems, essays, and songs. Some of the songs, such as “Do You Hear the People Sing?” or “The Internationale,” are familiar from previous protests, whereas others are new, referencing specific protest events from the last two weeks.

Over 130 years after it was written—and nearly a century after its lyrics were translated into Chinese—the “The Internationale” continues to resonate as a powerful message of defiance. It has been performed by symphony orchestras and heavy metal bands. Videos of hundreds of Tsinghua University students singing those stirring lyrics (“Nor gods, nor emperors on which to depend”) in Beijing on November 27 called to mind Shanghai’s locked-down residents blasting the song from their windows last April, and the Tiananmen Square protesters singing the same anthem back in the spring of 1989.

In terms of musical style, the four protest songs below range from folk ballads to marching anthems to Sichuanese rap, but all make reference to some of the various demands articulated by protesters: allow public mourning for the victims of the Urumqi fire, loosen COVID restrictions, respect citizens’ rights, put an end to heavy-handed policing, and oppose the unchecked power wielded by Xi Jinping.

Another protest anthem making a recent resurgence is the “Glory to Hong Kong,” originally sung by Hongkongers demonstrating against the 2019 extradition bill. At two international rugby tournaments this year, organizers either mislabeled the Chinese national anthem “March of the Volunteers” as “Glory to Hong Kong,” or played the latter by mistake instead of the national anthem. This has led Hong Kong authorities to open an investigation into possible national security law violations, and to pressure Google to censor the protest anthem in searches.

“Urumqi East”

Courtesy of an anonymous netizen, the protest tune “Urumqi East” has been making the rounds on the Chinese Internet. The accompanying video includes scenes from the November 26-27 protests near Shanghai’s Urumqi Middle Road, as well as some classic viral content such as the “zombies taking nucleic acid tests” and “PPE-clad ‘big whites’ dancing.” The tune and lyrics were adapted from Taiwanese singer-songwriter Lo Ta-yu’s (Luo Dayou’s) oft-banned classic “Queen’s Road East,” which described the anxieties and fears of Hong Kongers about the territory’s 1997 handover. The following is a partial translation of the lyrics to “Urumqi East”:

Why does Urumqi Road need to be under control?

Down this street, the people flowed

Workers took away the sign

Standing here, you can still hear the crowd roar

A blank piece of paper was confiscated

The cries echo from Zhengzhou to Guangzhou

Speak your fear, they’ll detain you

Great policy comes from the “Great Leader

Try to escape the flames, they’ll arrest you 

Who knows when the next fire will be? [Chinese]

“If You Won’t Take the Lead”

This protest song expresses solidarity for the student protesters at the Nanjing Institute of Communication who held up blank pieces of paper at a memorial for the victims of the November 24 Urumqi fire. The following is a full translation of the lyrics to If You Won’t Take the Lead:

Lyrics by: The students of the Communication University of China, Nanjing

Music by: Another blank piece of paper

Sung by:  Every blank piece of paper


If you won’t take the lead, please join the crowd

If you won’t join the crowd, please take our side

If you won’t take our side, please shout online

If you won’t shout online, please close your eyes,

Sit back and enjoy the rights we’ve earned for you

But don’t mock us, or turn a blind eye

Because the sunlight we fought for and won

belongs to everyone [Chinese]

“Down with Tyranny … No More Emperor Xi!”

Some online protest songs expressed a more overt political message. The first song, a rousing anthem, advocates the overthrow of Xi Jinping. Some netizens claim that the song was adapted from an earlier revolutionary tune: “Anthem of the Revolutionary Army” (Gemingjun Ge, 革命军歌). The accompanying video includes scenes from recent protests and an incident in Yinchuan, Ninxia province, in which a man complained that he was unable to breathe as a policeman knelt on his neck. The lyrics are as follows:

Wielding sickles and toting guns

Advancing toward the enemy line

Down with tyranny

Down with the mighty

Guaranteed equality for all

No more will the Chinese people be ruled by Emperor Xi

All shall be happy and healthy [Chinese]

Sichuanese Rap: “Can’t Imagine What Your Pain Was Like…”

Another popular song with a powerful protest message is this untitled Sichuan dialect rap. The rapper offers a blistering criticism of those who would remain apathetic in the face of others’ suffering, and empathizes with the pain of those who died in the fire. The lyrics are extensive, and here is a partial translation:

Road’s open, but they don’t run

It’s dark out, and you can’t see

Life’s cheap, like weeds

What’s more important—to live or be free?

[…] Problem solved, just shut your mouth, attaboy

Block that ‘net and cells, yeah, attaboy

Sit tight, stay blind, yeah, attaboy

Ain’t touch you, who cares, yeah, attaboy

Don’t think too much, eat up, yeah, attaboy

Don’t expect you to understand justice

But the wise ones know

You’re too scared to make a move

They block whatever’s true

Empty winter streets

Stuck at home, alone

Staring at the red outside,

Can’t imagine what your pain was like [Chinese]


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