China’s recent protests marked a crucial milestone: The mainstream Chinese public, at home and abroad, finally spoke up for the Uyghurs and their plight.
The widespread protests that erupted in China in late November, triggered by the deadly fire in Urumqi, were suppressed almost as soon as they started. But while they lasted, they electrified the nation, bringing thousands of strangers into the streets to stand together in a rare moment of defiance and courage. Though fueled by frustration at the draconian lockdown measures of the Chinese Communist Party’s zero-covid policy, the protests quickly expanded to accommodate a wide range of political slogans, including maximalist demands for democracy, inevitably drawing comparisons to the prodemocracy Tiananmen uprising of 1989.
Seasoned sinologists lost no time in cautioning against such comparisons, pointing out that these protests fell far short of Tiananmen in scale and scope. The Tiananmen protests, they insisted, were propelled by democratic idealism, while the recent protests were driven by desperation over the never-ending lockdowns. In one crucial way, however, the current protests surpassed those of 1989: We saw, for the first time in living memory, the mainstream Chinese public showing solidarity with an oppressed, non-Han minority. The slogans “Stand with Urumqi” and “We are all Xinjiang people” were recurring themes of the protests, in the streets as well as online.
For Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other ethnic groups who have long been at the receiving end of Han chauvinism, this sudden display of empathy toward Xinjiang is the most uplifting and promising aspect of the current protests. The humanization of the Uyghur figure in the Han imagination makes this a watershed moment, marking a subtle yet profound milestone in the moral-political evolution of a nation: the birth of conscience, which is not to be confused with political consciousness. Political consciousness is born when a group of individuals discovers a sense of collective identity and common interest. Conscience, on the other hand, springs forth only when the same group develops the higher-order capacity to empathize with a more unfortunate community and cultivates the humility to examine its own role in the reproduction of systemic injustice. If 1989 marked a reawakening of the Chinese people’s political consciousness, 2022 may yet come to represent the first awakening of their collective conscience.
In unprecedented scenes from Shanghai to Beijing to Wuhan, thousands of Chinese citizens defied the lockdown and held memorials for Uyghur victims of the Urumqi fire. They chanted “Liberate Xinjiang,” voicing opposition to the zero-covid policy responsible for creating the dangerous situation in which residents of a high-rise building in Urumqi found themselves trapped inside burning apartments. In Shanghai, where the Urumqi tragedy was transformed from a local grievance into a national flashpoint, police felt obliged to remove the newly famous street sign that read “Wulumuqi,” a transliteration of the city’s name which had become a rallying point for anti-lockdown mobilization.
Solidarity protests sprang up on university campuses in the West, as Chinese students abroad rushed to organize vigils at scores of universities. At Columbia, where I am currently a doctoral candidate, a Chinese student sent me a last-minute message about a vigil they were scrambling to organize for the Uyghur victims. I made it a point to attend, assuming that I would be lending my support to what was sure to be a small crowd given the general tendency among mainland students to avoid any political activity abroad, largely out of a well-founded fear that Beijing’s informers on campus were watching and reporting on them.
I was taken by surprise, as were the organizers, to see several-hundred students show up in the main yard and stand solemnly around a makeshift shrine dedicated to those who had died in the Urumqi fire. They held up blank sheets of white paper in their hands, mirroring a tactic that protesters in China were employing as a cryptic send-up of the regime’s pathological urge to censor everything. Slogans were modest at first but grew steadily bolder through the evening. Besides chanting for Xi Jinping’s resignation, the freedom to work, the freedom to read, and a panoply of other demands, some students also chanted slogans supporting Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, issues usually considered too politically sensitive by mainstream Chinese society in China as well as in the diaspora.
This new outburst of solidarity with the marginalized, no matter how limited and short-lived it may turn out to be, stands in stark contrast to the typical Han silence over Beijing’s atrocities against its minorities. In the last five years, as the Chinese government detained more than a million Uyghurs in internment camps and subjected them to torture, forced labor, and daily humiliation, no segment of the mainland public bothered to question, much less to protest, the morality and legality of the mass incarceration. In fact, many sided with the regime and claimed that international media reports on the Xinjiang camps were “fabricated” by the West to “tarnish” and “contain” China.
Likewise, a decade earlier, when Beijing used excessive force to crush the 2008 Tibetan uprising and the subsequent waves of protest self-immolations, there was little Han sympathy for the “ungrateful Tibetans.” This conspiracy of silence and apathy was fueled in part by decades of pre-existing racial prejudice against non-Han groups on the empire’s periphery, which made it easy for the regime to raise the twin specters of terrorism and separatism to justify the persecution of Uyghurs and Tibetans.
To be fair, it is possible, even likely, that the average Chinese person has no knowledge about the mass detentions in Xinjiang today. But in the age of the internet, when virtual private networks (VPNs) allow netizens to routinely circumvent the Great Firewall and access politically sensitive information within and beyond China’s borders, issue ignorance cannot stand in for moral innocence.
Thankfully, the silence has now been broken. Chinese citizens on the mainland are finally acknowledging that they should perhaps be “more sympathetic to the Uyghurs,” and some even admit that they have come to “admire Hong Kong protesters.” In one of the most heartfelt scenes of cross-racial empathy, a Chinese student speaking to a crowd at the University of California–Los Angeles offered a tearful apology to the Uyghur people. He ended his remarks by taking a deep bow, then throwing a fist in the air, chanting in English, “Stop concentration camps!” Others joined in, producing a chorus of solidarity that is rarely heard. No matter how tentative, we are witnessing a people find its voice of conscience in real time.
Each small act of conscience nurtures the courage to imagine alternative futures of freedom and reject the authoritarian status quo. It starts with the recognition that even within the same country there is a lopsided distribution of oppression across the ethnic divide. The best evidence of this unequal oppression is the ease with which some of the most discerning Chinese commentators in recent weeks have been using the term “social contract” to characterize the pre–Xi Jinping era relationship between the regime and the public. For Uyghurs and Tibetans, by contrast, any term that implies consent is nonexistent in their bleak glossary of colonial experience under Beijing—with or without Xi.
The wave of protests in China have ebbed for now following the regime’s swift and predictable clampdown. But not before planting a seed, some hope, for the possibility of a more inclusive and progressive democratic movement for human rights and freedom where the voices of the most marginalized are centered rather than excluded. “A mass uprising is more likely to succeed when it includes a larger proportion and a more diverse cross-section of a nation’s population,” writes the political scientist Erica Chenoweth, drawing on her extensive research on factors that make civil resistance more effective. Racial inclusion and ethnic diversity in a social movement are therefore not only normative values to be cherished but also strategic assets to be cultivated.
Chinese people are not free, but they are far from powerless. In early December, less than a week after the protests peaked, Beijing eased the lockdowns and started rolling back its zero-covid policy, conceding a clear victory to people power. If the Han majority spoke out more frequently and challenged Beijing over the suppression of Uyghurs the way it did over zero-covid, the Han people might be able to force the regime to shut down the concentration camps in Xinjiang. For better or worse, they are perhaps the only constituency in the world that could do so.
Tenzin Dorjee is senior researcher and strategist at the Tibet Action Institute, Stephanie G. Neuman Fellow (2021–22) at the Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies, and a PhD candidate in Columbia University’s Department of Political Science.
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