In conversation with the protesters at the Urumqi Fire Vigil

Protestors shared their feelings about the Urumqi Fire and thoughts on the growing protests against China’s “dynamic zero” policy and Xi Jinping.

A photo of students mourning the Urumqi Fire's victims at the vigil.

Many USC students gathered at the intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and Hoover Street on Tuesday, Nov. 29 for a candlelight vigil held in remembrance of the Urumqi Fire’s victims. The attendees ranged from protestors holding signs and chanting slogans against China’s “zero-Covid” policy to quiet observers holding candles as they stood outside the crowd.

Although it was held on a college campus, the event was organized by a non-USC student organization. Students either brought their own or were given blank sheets of A4 papers to demonstrate their support for the “A4 Revolution” (白纸运动), a series of protests sparked by the Urumqi Fire, where an apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang led to 10 confirmed deaths and 9 injured. According to The New York Times, many people suspect that the strict Covid lockdowns in the neighborhood hindered rescue efforts and led to the deaths.

A photo of the protesters shouting slogans against China's zero-Covid policy.

“I was very shocked [when I first saw the news on YouTube]. Man-made disasters have completely overtaken natural ones,” said Guoxiang Hu who was one of the organizers. He further stated: “The protests happening in Shanghai have been fierce. As a fellow Shanghainese, I want to do my part for democracy and freedom in Shanghai.”

Hu was referring to the series of protests taking place on Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, named after the city of Urumqi. As reported by the BBC, during a protest on Nov. 26, people in Shanghai chanted by far the boldest slogans: “Xi Jinping, step down” and “Communist party, step down.”

When asked what their hoped outcome of the event at USC was, an active student participant who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons commented, “Our power is in fact very limited, but we can still let the foreign media see that Chinese people are rising up. I think only if international forces pay enough attention to this matter can sanctions be imposed to some extent.”

Holding a protest sign plastered with slogans, the student continued, “For our compatriots at home, their situation is even worse. We hope we can provide them with some moral support across the ocean. We hope they don’t feel alone in this.”

A photo of a student holding a candle and a piece of blank A4 paper in protest.

This feeling of solidarity was a sentiment shared by many during the vigil. Besides student protestors, there was also Chinese We-media (自媒体) present live-streaming the event to Internet users. We-media refers to online news sources that are operated by individuals or collectives, who are often citizen journalists rather than professional reporters. One anchor, who owns an account called “加州墨茶,” stated: “My We-media platform mainly calls for democratic movement, or helps some powerless people like me to ‘run’ abroad.”

The anchor specifically used the word “run,” echoing the increasingly popular “run philosophy” in China. According to The Guardian, “run philosophy,” also known as “run xue,” is a coded way of talking about emigrating. It has become a buzzword on the Chinese internet as a response from young people to China’s declining economy, strict lockdowns, and “a social order that has become hyper-competitive, exhausting and unpredictable.”

Right outside the crowd, a USC graduate from Urumqi was handing out free T-shirts that said “Google ‘Uyghurs’” to people passing by. Near the end of the vigil, the T-shirts were already running out. “It’s very heartbreaking. The building [where the fire broke out] was literally about 5 miles away from my own apartment. So that’s the place I grew up. My high school was there. My middle school was next to it.” They further shared their message to fellow protestors: “I just hope this thing won’t remain as shouting, slogans, or words. I hope actual actions can happen, not just words.”

A student protester holds a sign that reads "Fascism is not Communism" while being interviewed by ATVN.

Around 8:30 PM, the crowd was chanting its demands for the Chinese government to recount the death toll. While the official number of victims announced by the government is 10 people, some speculate that the number of casualties is actually higher. At this point in the protest, the organizers welcomed anyone, with an emphasis on college students, who wished to speak up to step forward and make public speeches. Some protesters shouted chants that are not directly related to the Urumqi Fire but focused on the wider dissent against the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian regime, such as “the revolution of the times, the liberation of Hong Kong.”

As the event was drawing to a conclusion, the organizers did not forget to remind the protesters of their personal safety, saying, “Everyone must stay safe because there are many hostile forces that will turn on us. The CCP’s minions are still attacking everything. Do not assume you are free even if you are in the free world.”

Some protestors, however, also expressed a skeptical attitude towards the nature of this event and a relatively more pessimistic outlook on A4 Revolution’s direction in the future. One student who was standing at the far edge of the crowd commented, “I think these activities are somewhat extreme. When such gatherings are held outside China, the participants might not only be those who only wish to mourn the victims, but also those who are unable to return home for some reason. Some people here want to destroy the regime, some others just want chaos. But if there is too much chaos, or if there is not an effectively organized discussion, these things can go astray.”

Other students just expressed plain frustration and ridicule regarding the event and its organizers. An anonymous USC student of minority descent from China complained, “This event is of no use. These people are like clowns. Protesting itself is a good thing because it lets the CCP hear people’s demands. But it is capitalizing on the deaths of those victims. If people are to mourn the dead, they should focus on the fire itself and not other events. I definitely will not participate in similar protests after I return to China either because I live a comfortable life.”

As of December 1st, the Chinese government has not publicly acknowledged the growing anti-lockdown protests. As reported by The Guardian, the spokesperson of China’s foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, took a long and awkward pause before answering a journalist’s question on the demonstrations. Zhao stated that what the reporter had mentioned does not reflect what actually happened and continued to defend the zero-Covid policy. However, the Chinese Communist Party has also loosened some of the unpopular Covid restrictions, as reported by The New York Times. Many neighborhoods in Guangzhou announced the easing of the lockdown while some residents in Chongqing are also no longer required to take Covid tests on a regular basis. But as protests continue both within China and globally, the country’s citizens anxiously await a resolution to the seemingly daily social and political struggles.