On Halloween, dozens of people pulled on the full-body white protective suits worn by healthcare workers on the front lines of China’s draconian “zero-covid” policy. But this wasn’t in China, this was New York City. And instead of guarding against the virus, the suits were serving as a protest symbol, and for many of the Chinese activists, a disguise to shield their identities.
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To a bystander, it may have looked like just one more piece of theater in New York’s raucous Halloween parade, but for the Chinese students and dissidents dressed as “da bai” or “big white,” the colloquial term for China’s covid workers, it was a high-wire act of protest. They carried signs calling for ending zero-covid and the dethroning of a man who doesn’t take well to criticism: China’s President Xi Jinping.
The nationwide strike didn’t materialize, but the Bridge Man set off a brief flurry of supportive social media posts within China before censors shut them down — and a much wider response from Chinese activists outside the country’s borders. On 350 campuses worldwide, Chinese students have put up posters echoing the Bridge Man’s calls, and protests have been held in five other cities beyond New York. This is all according to CitizensDailyCN, a group of overseas Chinese tracking the dissent and facilitating it via online platforms including Instagram and Telegram.
While activism on American college campuses is routine, Chinese citizens working and studying overseas take on enormous risks for speaking out against the Chinese government. Numerous reports in recent years have shown that the government closely monitors students and dissidents abroad, and that these people may face threats and arrest if they return to China.
All of which means that the recent protests around the world — even a gathering of a few dozen Chinese students and dissidents in hazmat costumes at a New York parade — are significant.
“I’m really inspired,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch who is based in New York City. “I knew, because I talked to students over the years, that people felt repressed, they feel very afraid, they have ideas but they were afraid to talk about it, but I didn’t expect that there would be so many of them.”
The movement is using creative tactics, both high- and low-tech — secretive communications and those white protective costumes — to mask identities and evade the ever-watchful eye of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But the long arm of China’s repression has grown longer and more ominous under Xi’s rule, and if the protesters’ identities are discovered, the consequences could be severe.
Protest playbook: organizing dissent outside of China
Successful social movements are usually built around a sense of community and solidarity, often forged through late-night strategy sessions and rousing marches. For the Chinese activists, the playbook had to be inverted.
CitizensDailyCN, also known as Voice of CN, one of the groups helping to facilitate the recent activism, was formed over Telegram, a WhatsApp-like app that has some strong privacy features. The group’s members describe themselves as “young Chinese who have been continuously fighting against the totalitarian CCP government.” They first got together more than two years before the Bridge Man appeared, on the night that a doctor named Li Wenliang died.
Dr. Li was an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who shared news that a SARS-like virus was spreading in Wuhan in late December 2019. He was summoned by the police to sign a letter saying he had made “false comments,” and his death by covid a few weeks later turned him into something of a martyr — a potent symbol of the restrictions on freedom of speech and the government’s early cover-up of the pandemic. It also led to one of the greatest outpourings of anger and grief seen on Chinese social media in recent years — and the birth of a new anti-CCP group overseas.
Even as they formed a strategy, the group’s members hid their identities — not just from the outside world, but even from each other.
“Many of us still have ties in China and/or live in China, so it’s critical that we remain anonymous, not only for the safety of our own lives and those around us but also for this platform to continue to exist,” one of the organizers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Grid over Telegram. Other recent online initiatives for democracy and freedom of expression in China, including a crowdsourced archive of censored articles and a list of protests in China, had died out when their founders were arrested by the Chinese government.
The group turned to another movement for inspiration: the 2019 Hong Kong protests that brought millions to the streets. That movement offered two key lessons. First, instead of having a core leader, their activism would be decentralized; any individual organizer might be less of a target for punishment, and no one arrest would tank the movement. Another key lesson — this in the low-tech category: use posters as an initial form of protest. It seemed a simple idea, but posters placed in public spaces allowed activists to share messages with a wider public without venturing on to closely monitored social media sites.
In the growing protests inspired by Beijing’s Bridge Man, overseas Chinese students have hung posters on their campuses calling for democracy in China, an end to zero-covid and an end to Xi’s rule. Many have donned face masks to hide their identities. Chinese students Grid spoke to said they had taken care to place their posters without attracting attention from other Chinese students who might not support the cause.
After “the poster movement” — as the activists dubbed it — spread to universities across the world, the Voice of CN organizers decided to step it up a notch. They created five regional groups on Telegram where overseas Chinese could gather to share information and plans for in-person protests. These chat groups, titled “MyDuty,” helped spawn the in-person protests in New York, London, Toronto and several other cities.
The MyDuty groups have grown quickly. Since they were formed a couple of weeks ago, 3,000 people have now joined. There’s a clear appetite for activism, despite the inherent risks.
What happens when protesters are discovered by the government?
So far, in this latest show of dissent, the CitizensDailyCN organizer told Grid, “we have not heard of any government action on organizers overseas.” But the threat is always lurking.
For Chinese students and other dissidents overseas, any comments or demonstrations related to these subjects can lead to harsh consequences.
“The Chinese authorities and the Hong Kong authorities have devised these kinds of legal weapons, as they call it, to go after people,” said Laura Harth, a campaign director at Safeguard Defenders, an NGO based in Madrid. “So one thing is obviously the establishment of extraterritorial applications in their national security laws or provisions, which make people liable for things that are completely legal — for example, putting up a poster in the U.S. or tweeting something in the U.S. … If those people were to travel back to China, they might be liable for prosecution and conviction.”
A freshman at a university in New York who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Grid that her friend had learned this the hard way. “Because a friend of mine made some rude comments while studying abroad, he was taken away by the police when he got off the plane and returned to China,” she said. Given that she has been participating in the current dissent, putting up anti-Xi posters at her campus, she said, “I am also worried that I will be taken away by the police when I return to my country.”
Wang is often asked by activists whether it is safe for them to return home to China, and she says it’s hard to give a clear answer — because the government is inconsistent in its response. Some may get away with their activism, and others will be jailed. For her part, Harth said once an activist has gone public, it’s best not to return. “I understand it’s a very difficult choice,” she told Grid. “I think that’s one thing that people need to take into account. If you’re involved in activism, and speaking out, going back to China is not an option.”
He, the New York City protester, told Grid she was aware of the risks for her family back in China. “I don’t think I’m ever going to go back,” she said. “But I do still worry for my parents who are still working and also my grandparents and everyone else.”
“I felt I wasn’t alone”
Given all these challenges, how long can this latest protest movement last? Certainly one of the group’s core demands — the removal of Xi — seems inconceivable. After the party congress, Xi is now squarely at the helm for his third term, surrounded by loyalists. It’s hard to imagine anything unseating him.
Wang has seen this cycle many times — a movement grows and then fizzles out. “Just given the degree of repression in China, people feel so powerless, they decide to move on,” she said. “There’s no justice to seek, you know, there’s no way you can challenge the power.”
For many overseas protesters, zero-covid is a clear example of why China needs change — so that people can have some say in their lives. Wang said the issue might help sustain the movement because it has had a much wider impact on people across China — including the families of overseas students — than other issues that have provoked dissent: “The zero-covid policy really affects the students. I mean, I never felt, you know, the Xinjiang or Hong Kong issue affected the students in the way the covid policy affects them.”
At the New York protest, the salience of zero-covid to the activists was clear — abundantly so in their choice of costume. One of the main participants, with the pseudonym James, wrote on Telegram after the protest, “When I looked back and saw so many kindred spirits and bystanders cheering for us, I really felt that I wasn’t alone.” He added, “I hope there comes a day when we don’t have to be in disguise, when we can speak out openly.”
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