Why It Matters That China’s Protests Started in Xinjiang

Late last month, in a stunning display of frustration, people in multiple cities across China took to the streets to protest “zero Covid” policies. The calls to “jiefeng” — release the lockdown — evolved quickly into something more like calls for “jiefang” — liberation — as protesters shouted explicitly for freedom, free speech and democracy.

The Chinese party-state mobilized its massive security apparatus in response, and while in some places people are still clashing with police officers, the headiest moments of the “white paper revolution” may have passed. Still, before China settles into an uneasy winter of discontent, it’s worth pausing to remember an important fact that is currently at risk of becoming a footnote: The catalyst for these remarkable nationwide, cross-society protests, the likes of which have not been seen since the demonstrations of 1989, was a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur region, where acts of massive repression by the Chinese state may amount to “crimes against humanity,” according the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Those killed in the fire were almost certainly Uyghurs.

Does the ethnicity of the victims here matter? Many would say it does not. Though the scenes of Han people across China mourning the dead from Xinjiang were remarkable and deeply moving, the grief seemingly arose primarily from basic humanity and solidarity with the victims as fellow Chinese, all suffering in common from the excessive, irrational and dangerous “zero Covid” regime. According to reports, the victims died because lockdown measures impeded them from escaping the burning apartment block. (Officials have denied this.)

It is impossible to know, of course, what everyone involved was thinking, but in none of the many photos and video clips of the demonstrations that I have seen do protesters reference the atrocities happening in Xinjiang directly. While some protests abroad have done so, as far as outside observers can tell, no one protesting in China made demands like “close the camps,” “end forced labor” or “stop the Uyghur genocide.” This disappointed Uyghurs outside China, even as they welcomed the protesters’ outpouring of compassion.

The Uyghurness of the victims — and thus the broader crisis in Xinjiang — has mostly been elided. Screenshots of posters and slogans circulated online say “we are all Xinjiang people” or call them “compatriots” (“tongbao,” meaning “same placenta,” or twins) without specifying “Uyghur.” Chinese students in the United States have told me that even here, many feel reluctant to mention the broader Xinjiang repression in the context of the anti-“zero Covid” rallies held on American campuses. When I asked in Chinese on Twitter whether demonstrators were empathizing with the victims as Uyghurs or more generally as compatriots, some wondered why I was drawing such a distinction at all. “Is there a difference between Uyghurs and Han?” one netizen asked. “What a rotten question.” Another replied: “Uyghurs are our brothers and sisters!”

Certainly, common humanity alone compels our deep feelings at this tragedy. But the roots of the protests in Xinjiang should not be lost. The sight of Han Chinese protesting the deaths of Uyghurs is unusual and poignant, because for years, the Chinese party-state has justified its Xinjiang policies by demonizing Uyghurs as terrorists and religious extremists, or at least as ignorant peasants in need of forceful “vocational training.” And now, the images from the Urumqi fire have humanized and normalized Uyghurs for the entire country.

Mr. Xi’s Xinjiang policies and his Covid policies are connected: What began as a chilling medical metaphor — that an entire population must be subjected to brutal collective therapy to eradicate the thought “virus” of extremism — turned into reality when a real virus was visited upon China and the C.C.P. attacked it with the same weapons it wielded against the metaphorical disease.

In Xinjiang, under the premise of controlling an ideological virus, the state, starting in 2017, is believed to have interned over a million people in newly built indoctrination camps or prisons and tracked everyone else with cameras and smartphone apps, after harvesting their biometric data. It gathers behavioral and other data to classify people as “trustworthy” or “untrustworthy”; those deemed untrustworthy might be subjected to interrogation or detention and their movement might be restricted to their villages, neighborhoods or homes. People are arrested for having unapproved apps or content on their phones, which can be checked at any time.

The “zero Covid” system now institutionalized across China runs on exactly the same principles and technologies. To eradicate the novel coronavirus, people are locked up in their compounds or taken from their families to quarantine camps. Residents of whole city neighborhoods are confined if a few residents test positive — a collective punishment that exceeds any public health necessity.

In Xinjiang, the Covid lockdown has continued for over 100 days, and people hoping to leave the vast desert region must obtain an exit pass. Likewise, under “zero Covid,” all of China has effectively been cut off from the world through mandatory quarantines for international travelers. People in Chinese cities are confined in their workplaces or apartment buildings. Citizens’ data are gathered daily through incessant and invasive P.C.R. tests that are entered into databases and used to code them; one’s ability to move around depends on this code, which is transmitted and checked on smartphones. And now police officers are reportedly searching phones for incriminating content on the subway in Shanghai in what the Chinese Australian activist and artist Badiucao aptly labeled “Xinjiang-ization.”

Whether targeting Xinjiang dissent or Covid-19, Mr. Xi’s regime responds the same way: to lock up and invigilate with new technologies or crudely effective old ones (concrete walls, steel bars, police batons). And the rationale for all this sealing off and locking down? In each case, it is an emergency that never seems to end. Political theorists in the early 20th century coined the term “state of exception” for an authoritarian state’s use of crises to normalize extraordinary extralegal measures — and keep them in effect indefinitely. In China, Mr. Xi first put Xinjiang in a state of exception, and more recently has used Covid-19 as justification to do the same for the country’s entire population of 1.4 billion.

So when Chinese people surged out of their barricaded compounds to show solidarity with Uyghur fire victims, they were brought together by more than just the burdensome “zero Covid” policies. Whether they declared it or even recognized it, they were, all together, taking exception to the interminable state of exception. Their common cause implicitly rejects the C.C.P.’s entire approach, one that treats all problems as nails to be hammered into submission, by confining and controlling the people rather than serving them.

On Nov. 26, Chinese protesters gathered, pointedly, on Urumqi Road in Shanghai to mourn their dead Uyghur compatriots. Early the next morning, authorities took down the “Urumqi Road” sign from its post, apparently hoping in this way to sever the now recognizable connection between its policies in Xinjiang and in the rest of China. But as one Chinese netizen put it, with a Chinese proverb, those carrying away the Urumqi Road sign were “covering their ears while stealing a bell.” They were fooling themselves, in other words. It may be that this bell of solidarity across ethnic lines, once rung, can’t be so easily unrung.

James A. Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, is the author of “Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang” and “The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction.”

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