On 24 November 2022, at least 10 people died in an apartment fire in the city of Urumqi, northwest China. They were reportedly prevented from escaping due to strict covid-19 controls.
The tragedy sparked an outpouring of anger and emotion. Across China, people took to the streets in numbers not seen for decades – many holding up blank sheets of paper to symbolize systematic censorship by the Chinese government – and the ‘White Paper’ protest movement quickly spread overseas. One year on, we hear from six people whose participation in those protests – in China and abroad – was a life-affirming experience*:
The White Paper Movement (and the Sitong Bridge protest a month earlier) completely changed my life. Since October 2022, my fellow activists and I have put up solidarity posters, organized rallies and candlelight vigils – I even started an independent magazine. I did many things that I never imagined.
As an overseas Chinese, on one side is a foreign environment that I cannot fully integrate into, and on the other side is my homeland of China where nationalism is on the rise. I feel pessimistic and depressed in the gap between the two. I feel isolated and helpless under censorship, and I have to hide myself. But social movements have allowed me and others to see each other. We are no longer “disempowered” but can become “activists” and fight for human rights and justice. This in itself has become an identity that I am proud of. It also brought me the courage and motivation to continue participating in social change, despite the fear of retribution from the authorities.
My civic consciousness awakened relatively late. Although I had been silently paying attention to social events before, it was not until the Fengxian chained woman incident and the Shanghai lockdown in 2022 that I began to move from speaking out to taking to the streets to protest.
I participated in the protest on Urumqi Road in Shanghai on the night of 26 November. I never thought so many people in China would gather together to speak out for the victims of the lockdowns. It was also the first time that I witnessed the police’s treatment of the protesters at the scene. Atrocities.
When I was arrested for taking part in the White Paper Movement, my life was completely changed. I was immersed in fear every day that I might not be able to go abroad in the future, but I was also determined to leave, and I did.
An old man next to me raised his thumbs to us: “Good shout!” I burst into tears that had been silenced for a long time.
After leaving China, I became more involved in social movements. I once dreamed of working in a big company after graduation, but now my artwork is related to politics, and I hope to work in a human rights organization in the future.
On 27 November, 2022, I learned from social media that there was an event in support of the White Paper Movement at the Chinese Embassy in London that night. When I arrived, I found many candles lit to commemorate the compatriots who died in the Urumqi fire. I held an electronic candle, and many people around me also held homemade signs and posters, as well as pieces of white paper. There were speeches and slogans being shouted. From the passionate voices of the crowd, I could really feel their anger. I was also one of them.
This was the first time I had seen so many people from within the Chinese community in the UK participating in a protest. The events I attended before were not attended by many people – sometimes, it was just me. But even if I am alone, I will not give up. What I know is that if we stop protesting, man-made disasters and humanitarian disasters will repeat themselves. I hope more people will realize this and keep protesting and working hard until freedom and democracy in China are truly realized.
My hometown is one of the areas with the strictest surveillance and censorship in China, and it had the longest lockdown period during the pandemic. Communist Party slogans can be seen everywhere, and there are mandatory security checks at the entrance of every indoor public place.
On 12 October 2022 my grandma, who rarely contacted me, sent me a WeChat message: “The epidemic here is very serious, and we are not allowed to go out. I don’t know when it will end!”
On 13 October, I saw images of the Beijing Sitong Bridge protest on social media. Almost immediately, Chinese students from all over the world put up posters in solidarity. Although I had a small impulse to put up posters on my university campus, I actually didn’t know how to do it. After all, in China we have never learned how to express ourselves politically. Timidly, I printed five posters, and put Scotch tape and thumbtacks in my bag. But when I reached the main teaching building, I was overjoyed to find that there were already several posters about the Sitong Bridge incident, and I silently added mine. In this way, I met friends who put up posters on the same campus.
A week later, we joined a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy. I wore a mask, and my hat covered my eyes and nose; I even stood behind one of my companions. When I thought that my family members thousands of miles away might get into trouble, I didn’t dare to shout out the slogans. Gradually I gained a little bit of courage and repeated the slogans in a low voice. An old man next to me raised his thumbs to us: “Good shout!” I burst into tears that had been silenced for a long time.
There is no way of knowing whether anyone else has been arrested. China is like a black hole of information.
After that, I became more actively involved in street protests and got to know precious “revolutionary sisters”. When my sisters and I walked onto the street, my body felt a release that I can’t describe. It was probably like taking the first breath of fresh air when you were about to be suffocated. Whether it is for your own demands or for the demands of people far away, perhaps those moments of shouting can define the feeling of being alive.
In my dreams, I often go back to that time. When talking to many other people who were arrested for taking part in the White Paper protests, a word they often use is “trauma.” There is no doubt that I, too, live with this trauma.
After the protests ended and I moved abroad, I collected many testimonies from participants of the White Paper Movement. This documentation is important. In modern China, the system has forced people time and again to forget their own history – all the disasters in the past, from the Great Leap Forward to Tiananmen. But I have always been confident in history and the future – these testimonies can make people adopt our narrative.
As a “sensitive person”, living overseas is by no means an easy task. I have to worry about my own safety all the time, and the news that my family members in China were harassed by the police always affects my mood.
There is no way of knowing whether anyone else has been arrested. China is like a black hole of information. On 26 and 27 November 2022, two busloads of people were stopped by police and disappeared into the Shanghai night.
Where did those people go? Everything becomes a mystery. I always hope that one day in the future, at dawn, we can walk to the intersection of Urumqi Road again and recognize each other. I wonder how long it will take for that day to arrive.
I can’t even remember the moment when the “White Paper Movement” broke out. The memory of that period is tense and fuzzy. It was the first time I put up a poster with political opinions, the first time I took to the streets, and the first time I faced a pair of eyes and said those code words that only existed privately between me and my friends.
I remember the posters on the school bulletin board, and the rally in front of the Chinese Embassy in London on 27 November. It was such a strange feeling to see so many Chinese students at once.
There were countless moments that I thought would be unforgettable, but now they have become a blur in my mind. At the time, I had no time to think about these things. Now, I am afraid of recalling the pain of those powerless moments. I am afraid of being constantly tormented by the guilt of “I did nothing.” I have friends who were violently injured by the police, detained for questioning and prevented from making contact. I have friends operating on campuses in China. I have friends taking to the streets of Beijing. In comparison, how do I dare say what I did was to participate in a “movement”? But I wrote this anyway. I believe this is because I comfort myself by being heard. Yes, I am heard and remembered, and that is when I feel most powerful.
*Some activists’ names have been changed for security reasons