“A summary of the experience that the oppressed Chinese people have been going through for so long and their strong desire to come out as who they are.”

More than 400 people gathered near the Tiananmen Memorial in Boston’s Chinatown last Friday to join the candlelight vigil for 10 victims of the Ürümqi fire on Nov. 24, echoing waves of protests on the streets across China.

Hundreds of protests and vigils, both in China and in other countries, erupted last week after the delayed emergency response to the fatal fire that broke out in a residential apartment in an Uyghur-majority neighborhood in Ürümqi, the capital city of Xinjiang. Locally, vigils were held at Faneuil Hall in Boston and Harvard Square in Cambridge earlier last week.

“I felt like I had to stand up this time because I felt a sense of responsibility,” said Zhongzi, an exchange student from China who attended the Harvard Square vigil last Tuesday. “I do think that this movement is about all of us, and there is no way for me to be absent. I feel obliged to give my voice.”

“It’s my duty! It’s our duty!” International students from China like Eddy said he can feel the anger, frustration, and excitement when he shouted with the crowds on Friday.

“It’s very powerful,” Eddy said. “It’s kind of a summary of the experience that the oppressed Chinese people have been going through for so long and their strong desire to come out as who they are and voice their opinions without having to fear persecution for speaking out.”

Many of the participants including international Chinese students, Uyghurs, Hongkongers, Taiwanese, and Boston residents—held candles and flowers for condolences and brought their posters and signs to the vigil.

Many of them held up blank sheets of paper in solidarity with protesters in China and other major cities around the world demonstrating that Chinese people want to express themselves but are restricted from doing so due to China’s strict censorship.

The blank sheet of paper was first held in silent protest by a girl in Nanjing, China, and later it became the symbol for the “A4Revolution” movement.

“It’s a way to protect the protesters,” said Fish, an international student from China studying in Boston now. “There is nothing written on the paper, so the police and the government can’t accuse us of the content.”

Grey, a Boston-area musician, said the symbol of the blank paper shows “the creativity and the courage of people in China.”

“It also shows the futility of censorship, which was always a very fragile system that marketed itself as an unbeatable iron cage, but I’m seeing cracks forming,” he said in an interview. “If enough of you start going in the streets and waving these papers around, then you can’t block everybody’s window. People will look out the window and see that happening.” 

Eddy printed some posters he saw on the Internet and held them on Friday—one reads “Our Four Demands: Allow public mourn; End the Zero Covid Policy; Release protestors; Protect human rights.” The other was the ironic portrait of “Winnie the Pooh” in reference to Xi Jinping.

Some other common signs are “Free Uyghurs!”  “Xi Jinping Step Down!”; “Freedom of Speech”, “Freedom of Movie Publication!”; “Don’t Forget; Don’t Forgive!”; and the road signs on Shanghai’s Ürümqi Road that were removed after the mass protests on Nov. 26 in Shanghai, China.

“Do you feel safe?”  

Due to safety concerns, many of the attendees at Friday’s vigil dressed up in all black put their hats on and wore face-covering masks so that they can protect their families in China from governmental retaliation.

Tanhuang, a Chinese international student studying arts in Boston, said it was the first time he went to a public vigil. He stated that, while he did not feel safe during the vigil, he was able to express his repressed emotions by chanting all of the slogans with the crowds.

“I feel that I have expressed what I want to express for a long time,” Tanhuang said. “Although I know that there are bad people looking at me in the crowds, I’m going to walk out to the street and speak out because only when more people do these things, more people will have a chance to know what’s going on in China.”

John is a Chinese student who has been studying in the United States for six years. He found out about the Boston Vigil through Twitter. He was one of the few Chinese students who “wasn’t very concerned” about his safety at the event. He said he didn’t even wear a mask, compared to most of the international students, who wore masks to protect themselves.

“I think we may have overestimated the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to identify each individual’s face in public vigils in the United States, so I didn’t do much for security measures. … I chose to stand in a position that wasn’t particularly conspicuous, so I didn’t recognize myself in the photos and videos people took after the vigil.”

A connected space

The Boston Stands With Ürümqi demonstration was organized to support the victims of the fire as well as those of all the oppressed and suppressed in China. At the two-hour vigil, organizers created an open mic section where people could share their stories of suffering from the Zero COVID policy, the agony of Xinjiang concentration camps, and encouragement to continue showing support and standing in solidarity with Chinese citizens who feel the same way but are unable to speak openly.

“We really wanted to provide a platform for the Chinese community in Boston to practice their freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” a group of anonymous organizers wrote in an email.

Organizers said this would be an opportunity for many young Chinese to break their echo chambers, embrace diversity, and show solidarity with oppressed people everywhere.

“It would also be a great opportunity to display the bravery and the freedom-loving spirits of the Chinese diaspora community, as we were sometimes painted as “apathetic about social justice” or “brainwashed by propaganda,” they said.

Since 2017, millions of Uyghurs and Muslims were sent to the Xinjiang concentration camps or forced labor camps officially called vocational education and training centers operated by the government of Xinjiang and the Chinese Communist Party Provincial Standing Committee.

Tumaris, an Uyghur student in Boston and an open-mic speaker, shared her story of both her parents and then-12-year-old brother being taken into the concentration camps in 2017. She said her parents are among the survivors of the Ürümqi fire.

“My hands were trembling when I kept calling my family back in Ürümqi. When I learned that my parents are safe, I was filled with survivor’s guilt,” she said in her speech. “After I hung up the phone with my parents, I couldn’t say anything. My chest was blocked, and I was lying on the ground with my ears covered as if I could hear the people screaming.”

She said she was shocked that she could hear support for Uyghurs’ rights from Han Chinese students.

“I still can’t believe it’s happening that we have supporters, because we, our own Uyghur community, have always been separated from Han people,” Tumaris said. “We are always protesting on our own, and we’ve never had so many supporters.”

As an open-mic speaker, Fish apologized to all the Uyghurs in her speech. She said she wanted to stand up and bring attention from a Han Chinese perspective to the victims of the fire, the Uyghurs, who are “more oppressed by the same regime.”

“It wasn’t until 2020 that I learned about millions of innocents in the Uyghur region who were imprisoned in concentration camps, forced to work in factories, and kept in ‘training centers’ where they would be shot to death if they escaped,” she said on Friday. “No ethnic group, no culture, no language, should be treated in this way.”

Shayida Ali, a member of the Boston Uyghur Association, was another a open-mic speaker on Friday. She said Friday’s gathering was “historic” since all the oppressive groups stood up in solidarity with each other.

“As an Uyghur, I speak only for myself and accept the apology of this conscientious and conscious Chinese,” Ali said in the speech. “As a family member of the victims of the CCP concentration camps, I am very moved and admire your courage in leading the global white paper movement.”

Ali said her father has been taken to the concentration camp in 2017 and she still didn’t have any information about her dad by now.

“I, myself shook when we chanted ‘Closed the concentration camp!’ and ‘Free Uyghurs!’” Ali said in the interview that whenever she chanted these slogans, she trembled and started to tear up.

Over the past five years, Ali and her community have screamed about what happened in Xinjiang and asked for help, but not a lot of people recognized the Uyghurs’ suffering as real.

“A lot of the time I felt hopeless because every time I see the news coming out of China about the concentration camps, I feel terrible and I feel very weak and very powerless,” Ali said, adding that she has felt like her voice doesn’t matter and that no one hears or understands them. “But for now, when we have a chance to speak out, I think it’s very important to let our story be heard and tell them what happened in the past and what might happen if we don’t act now.”

John said what impressed him the most were Tumaris’s and Ali’s speeches. He said it was the first time he had been so close to the victims’ families, hearing them talk about what happened to them.

“It’s appreciated that the organizers provide opportunities for the Uyghurs to be the main participants in the event, to speak out and get support,” John said. “It is quite touching.”

Tanhuang described the Friday vigil as “heartwarming and moving” because he heard so many other people of like mind chanting “End the Concentration Camp!”

“I am Han Chinese. Since I grew up in the middle part of China, I seldom had a sense of feeling like a minority,” Tanhuang said. “But when I came to the United States and became a minority, I realized that the mainstream voice is not so certain or reliable.” 

Fish said one Uyghur girl went up to her to thank her for the apologies and her support after the vigil.

“We hugged each other, and I really felt at that moment that what we were doing was meaningful,” she said. “For the first time, we felt a connection between people. Although we didn’t know each other, our hearts were together.”

Broad support

Grey is also one of the volunteers organizing the Boston Vigil. He was surprised that a lot of Chinese international students stand up to organize the gathering.

“I think everybody has taken a big step forward in their comfort level in terms of what they’re willing to do to uphold justice,” he added.

Grey said the first time he felt angry about China was when a student who participated in protesting for the ‘Bridge Man’ in Beijing, who hung a banner on Sitong Bridge in October, got attacked and harassed at school.

“I feel very differently about this issue because I believe these kids are alone and they don’t have any support from their families and friends,” Grey said, noting that joining the Harvard Square’s vigil was a first for him.

“Brothers and sisters, I will no longer be a ‘fake friend’ of China from today,” Grey said in Mandarin at the open mic. “I will no longer be silent, no longer endure, and no longer self-censor. To do so would be unfair to you.”

Two Iranians, Saba Rezaei and Arimita Kazemi Najafabadi, brought a poster reading “Fighting Freedom for Iran to China,” and stood in front of the crowd to show support for hundreds of Chinese people.

“We are from different cultures and different countries, but we care about each other and want to help each other solve the problems.” Najafabadi said that she felt “united” at the Friday vigil.

Rezaei said she told her Chinese friends that people all over the world shouldn’t fight separately.

“Our freedom is connected. We cannot free Iran without trying to free Afghanistan, Syria, and the whole east area,” Rezaei said. “We should fight all together because we are all suffering from the same thing, dictatorship.”

Rezaeie described how the sight of Chinese people covering themselves with hats and masks reminded her of wearing large sunglasses and a mask during protests against Iranian leaders.

“When we start not being scared of those dictators, they are not powerful anymore,” she said. “They are powerful because they made us believe they are in control of us and they can like kill us or like they can torture us … But when we gain back our bravery, they will fall.”

Both Rezaei and Najafabadi encouraged Chinese people to be louder and raise public awareness.

“If it is the first time that people in China came to the streets, even if you don’t get to the main goal this time, it is the beginning of a very big plan,” Rezaei said. “By coming to the streets, again and again, we will weaken the dictatorship.”

A safer public space

Frustrations over the Chinese government’s “Zero-COVID” policy—including lockdowns, mass testing, and quarantine—have evolved into an unprecedented wave of demands for freedom and human rights.

“We should acknowledge that before ‘Zero-Covid,’ Uyghurs are dying. They are being sterilized, separated from family, sent to prison, and killed,” said Ki, the first international student to speak in English during the open-mic section on Friday. “We should also look upon the patriarchal undertone of Chinese society, where millions of girls never got the chance to be born, and the sound of LGBTQ is being silenced. And don’t forget the Hong Kong democracy movement, the human rights lawyers, and every brave person.”

“Women’s Lives Matter!” Ki said she heard the crowd chanting on Friday.

For Eddy, his personal demands are freedom of speech and freedom of the press in China. “If the government is not able to hide anything and people can really talk about politics and talk about what’s happening, all the incidents that happened because of the mismanagement of the government or their poor policy decisions will affect the social dialogue that can change a lot of things in China,” he said.

John said he hopes this movement can further help create a peaceful and safe political discussion space where people can trust each other and become more united: “I hope protests and vigils can continue, and I hope we can have the freedom to assemble so that it can become as normal as eating and sleeping. … I hope it’s not a burden for us and that it becomes a real part of our lives and stays with us.”

Organizers said “it’s a great leap” to create a public forum for a lot of Chinese dissidents who don’t have a space to openly express their feelings for fear of government surveillance.

“A peaceful political discussion space was critical in maintaining an orderly presence,” they said after the Friday demonstration. “We believed creating such a space would also help them learn how to engage in political discussions in public peacefully. We sincerely hoped people with different ideas can find common ground through the event. The real change could only happen when more and more people join us.”

Organizers added, “We saw the Urumqi Fire as yet another symptom of the cruel and systematic oppression that Uyghurs have been enduring in China. We wanted to use this opportunity to amplify their voice, especially at an event that called for solidarity.”

“If we call for justice, democracy, liberty, and human rights, we should stand with every individual who faces oppression and violence,” Ki said in her speech. “We are free. And we will be free!”

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