[CW: This article discusses death.]
On Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, a fire broke out in an apartment building in Urumqi, China, killing at least 10 people. Many surmise that the people who lived in the apartment were unable to escape the building due to COVID-19 lockdown policies, which blocked the exits of buildings, including fire exits. Videos circulating on Chinese social media platforms showed fire trucks parked far away from the building, causing some to wonder whether the firefighters were unable to reach the apartment in time due to lockdown movement restrictions.
CNN reports that Urumqi has been under strict lockdown since August. For the past three years, China has abided by its zero-COVID policy, which uses strict lockdowns and community-wide testing to keep its COVID case counts at zero. When the World Health Organization declared that China’s zero-COVID policy was unsustainable in May 2022, the Chinese government censored all transmission of this news in local media.
It is important to place into context the political situation of Urumqi. Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in northwest China. It is home to many ethnic minorities, including the Uyghur people. Over the past few years, human rights groups around the world have accused China of genocide against the Uyghur people and other Muslim minority populations in Xinjiang, according to BBC. It is believed by Western states that the government forcefully displaced hundreds of thousands of Uyghur people into what it calls “re-education camps,” and there have been several movements against the use of Xinjiang cotton due to its implication with forced labor. In 2021, H&M and Nike made a statement declaring their concerns over the alleged use of Uighur forced labor in cotton production, BBC reports. This led to a large-scale boycott of H&M and Nike products in China, including H&M being taken off all Chinese e-commerce sites, which caused massive damage to their sales.
News of the Urumqi fire quickly spread across Chinese social media. Chinese internet users believe that more than 10 lives were lost in the catastrophe. Vigils began in local Urumqi with at least 14 cities outside Xinjiang, such as Beijing, Chengdu, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Wuhan, following suit, according to Foreign Policy. One of the most prominent vigils took place on Urumqi Road in Shanghai, CNN reports. Many of the vigils have also transformed into demonstrations against the longtime COVID restrictions in the country, as many residents have been pushed to the brink by three years of forced lockdowns, quarantines and COVID tests, according to CNN. Remarkably, some protestors even called for political freedom—risky declarations in an authoritarian state like China.
Protestors have taken up a striking symbol of dissent: the blank A4 paper. Blank paper has traditionally served as a symbol against censorship: If there is nothing to be said, let us say nothing at all. In an authoritarian regime where any word can be censored and anyone can be arrested for political dissonance, protestors hold up blank pieces of paper to capture not only their forced silence, but also everything they hope to say without fear.
The mass presence of protests in China is remarkable, because protesting in China is not safe. The last notable nationwide protest in mainland China ended in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Student-led, pro-democracy protests began in the mid-1980s and involved millions of citizens who gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest against the repressive government regime. On June 4 and 5, 1989, the Chinese military was brought to quell the protests, shooting into live crowds. BBC estimates that thousands of people died that day, with many more arrested. Today, this topic is heavily censored by the Chinese government. In China, the internet is almost completely monitored by the government, with its infamous firewall that blocks sites like Google, YouTube and Facebook, among others. To access these sites, citizens in the country must download a Virtual Private Network (VPNs), a resource only the wealthy are able to access.
Vigils for the Urumqi fire and subsequent protests against COVID policies are not only occurring in China, but all over the world, wherever the Chinese diaspora has spread to. Several universities in the United States, including Duke and Columbia, held vigils on campus.
On Monday, Nov. 28, a group of Vassar students organized a vigil for the Urumqi fire. It began with several minutes of silence. The organizers distributed pamphlets describing the background of the Urumqi fire and what the vigil hopes to achieve. Students spoke about their experiences with the Chinese COVID restrictions and read poems and prose they wrote about the lockdown. The vigil ended with a candle lighting to mourn the lives that were lost.
This issue is very personal to me. Earlier this year, I lived through the Shanghai lockdown. I was not allowed to leave the gates of my apartment compound for almost three months, from early March to June. This is not your typical lockdown; it is not the one you are imagining. My family was completely locked inside our apartment for four weeks because we had a positive COVID case in our building. The only time we were allowed to leave our apartment to feel the sunlight and breathe in fresh air was for our daily COVID test.
To move around in China, you must hold a green health QR code proving that you tested negative for COVID in the past 72 hours. If you test positive for COVID in China, you are taken to centralized quarantine facilities, such as the Fangcang Hospital (originally the Shanghai Expo Center) which houses 4,000 beds in one massive room. There are few restrooms and zero accommodations for the elderly and disabled. If two parents test positive, their newborn infant might be left at home with no one to care for them. If a baby tests positive, they can be forcefully taken to centralized care, where one nurse takes care of over seven children.
In early 2022, a viral Weibo post detailed a Xi’an hospital’s rejection of a pregnant woman because she did not have the necessary health QR code. Her baby died the next day. Hundreds of similar stories circulated around the internet, such as the story of a 14-year-old girl who died in a quarantine facility after not receiving adequate medical care for her fever, as reported by CBS. During citywide lockdowns, most medical workers were dispersed to conduct COVID tests at every single residential compound in the city, which meant there were few left to take care of other medical needs. I personally knew people who did not have access to medications or were in long lines for much-needed medical attention.
My family ordered our food through online WeChat groups, where vegetables and rice were sent in bulk to apartment compounds. Simple vegetables like cabbage could be sold at over three times the price it usually was. The government distributed food packages, but supplies ran out quickly (I’ve read that some government-delivered foods had expiration dates in the past or production dates in the future). The problem of sustenance intensifies if you do not speak Chinese or know how to use WeChat. Thousands of elderly people living alone struggled to get food.
I remember a discussion I had with my French professor about the fire exits at the quarantine hotels, which were blocked to prevent people from escaping. We talked about the dire consequences that would occur if there was a fire at any of the hotels. To be honest, I was surprised a fire-related tragedy like this occurred so late in the nationwide lockdown.
Online discussions and protests occurred every day of our lockdown, but obviously, most viral posts were immediately taken down by the authorities. Certain codewords were censored across all Chinese social media, people had their accounts deleted and millions of people lost their incomes. We had no voice and nowhere to go. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
As we read about the protests in Iran, the war in Ukraine and the demonstrations in China, I hope we realize the enormous amount of privilege we have to have a free voice. And I hope we have the courage to use it.