The following essay, published by Initiumon December 4, 2022, was part of a series of reports on the so-called “white-paper protests” in Shanghai that grew out of defiance over China’s stringent lockdown policies. The protests followed the tragic death on November 24 of at least 10 people who were trapped – possibly due in part to Covid-related lockdown measures — as a fire broke out in a high-rise apartment block in Urumqi, the capital of the far western Xinjiang region. All of the victims of the fire, including 9 others who were injured, were members of the Uyghur ethnic group, which since 2017 has faced a repressive crackdown.
The essay, written by an unidentified Han woman, is also part of an extended series at Initium called, “Does A Woman Have No Country?” (女人沒有國家?), edited by Fu Yuxin (符雨欣), which explores the relationship between women and the state.
A full translation of the essay follows.
Victims Turned into Symbols
During the wave of protests against lockdowns in China, I took part in a candlelight vigil overseas for the victims of the fire in Urumqi. And at the event, I was filled with guilt and despair. I had the profound feeling that night that as a Han Chinese, I was a Chinese White.
I understand, of course, that such acts of resistance are rare in China, and that I should praise and cherish the opportunity. But I felt even more that this movement of resistance ignited by the Urumqi fire, which had spread from the streets of Shanghai across the world, could not provoke or achieve real unity until the slogan “Free the Uyghurs!” was shouted. Without that, it didn’t matter how often we shouted for Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party to step down.
A Symbolic Memorial
This vigil I attended was much like other commemorations taking place overseas that I had seen online. It was about expressing support for the resistance movement inside China by remembering the victims of the Urumqi fire. There were quite a few people attending, and everyone brought along candles, fresh flowers, and blank sheets of paper. At the event, everyone shouted with indignation the slogan that had been draped across the Sitong Bridge in Beijing. Messages were placed among the candles and fresh flowers, opposing the lockdown, opposing authoritarianism, and calling for freedom — but there were just a few photos of the victims.
People in the crowd shouted for the peace of the deceased, but I had no idea how many actually knew for whom they were mourning, or how many people knew that every one of the victims was Uyghur, or how many people knew that five people from one family had perished in the fire — [a Uyghur mother and four of her children] — and that the father and older brother had been held in concentration camps since 2017.
Of course, this ignorance of the identities of the dead is rooted in the way the Chinese government turns victims into numbers, refusing to release their identities. Even searching for information on the victims is criminalized in China. But as people whose purpose in attending the vigil was to remember, was it not possible for us to find what little we could online — to truly and authentically remember? In this anti-totalitarian protest for freedom, the Uyghurs who perished in the fire had become symbols.
It is hard to describe the feeling of shame and uneasiness I felt in that moment of realization.
I had no business disparaging other protesters or the organizers. After all, I too was exploiting the Uyghur dead in a symbolic sense. During those days when I had nursed my anger over the Urumqi fire and felt invigorated by the mass resistance unfolding in China, I had never taken it upon myself to find out who the victims actually were. Before the vigil, I had thought only of taking along a blank sheet of paper. It hadn’t even occurred to me to print out and take along photos of the deceased. It was only before the vigil too that I realized I didn’t really know who we were mourning, and only after an internet search did I discover all the victims were Uyghurs. It was from the Uyghur blogger Abduweli Ayup that I first learned about the fate of the father and eldest son who had lost five family members in the fire.
The victims in Urumqi are not just those who suffered or died under Covid lockdown policies, like those victims who died in the Guizhou bus crash in September. Even more, the Uyghur victims in Urumqi are those who have suffered under the policy of ethnic cleansing.
It was also as I was grappling with these things that I became aware of the fact that many posters and slogans we shouted mentioned our “brethren” (同胞). How could Han people have the gall to refer to Uyghurs as their brethren? For so many years, the vast majority of Han Chinese had turned a blind eye to the tragic experiences of their brethren as they faced ethnic cleansing. Now, with an eye to their own freedom, they had begun shouting “brethren.”
It was just as Nyrola, another Uyghur blogger, wrote — that once the lockdowns had ended, Han Chinese could simply “move on.” But what of the injustices suffered by the Uyghurs locked up in concentration camps these past five years? Who would release them? Yes, exactly. Once lockdown policies had been relaxed and Han people had stepped out from behind their containment fences, would they still remember their Uyghur “brethren” in the concentration camps?
On my way to the vigil that night, I made up my mind. I would shout the slogan, “Close the concentration camps!” I realized that if I did not speak up for the Uyghurs at a vigil being held in the name of remembering Uyghur victims, this would be inhuman.
In the tide of shame that overwhelmed me, I mustered up the courage to shout as many times as I could. The crowd followed suit. I also shared the story of the family of five that I knew, and there were expressions of outrage.
“Close the concentration camps!” I shouted.
But it didn’t make me feel any better. That night, I knew something about the family of those five victims, but I knew nothing about any of the other victims. I didn’t even know their names. I still had no idea who I was commemorating. Authoritarian government control is built on the foundation of dehumanization. But here too an event opposing authoritarian rule was using victims as slogans and symbols of protest. And it is precisely for this reason — because there are no concrete people, and no Uyghurs, to be seen — that anti-totalitarian protests like this actually encourage and even foster Han-centrism and oppression of the Uyghurs.
I shouted for the closure of the concentration camps, but I still felt no better. To not go, and to not shout these slogans and make my voice heard would have been wrong. But for me as a Han Chinese to shout, “Close the concentration camps!” at such an event without the presence of Uyghur voices — that also felt wrong.
I felt an indescribable sense of hypocrisy. At that moment, I felt like a white person at a rally of white people chanting “Black Lives Matter!” — or like a white man at an all-male rally chanting for women’s rights.
All in one moment, I faced a truth, at last, that I had always evaded. As a Han woman, and as a feminist who had long faced suppression, I had never considered that I might enjoy special privileges in China. I had identified as one of the oppressed. But I could not deny that as a Han Chinese, as a Han person who had long known of the tragedy facing the Uyghurs but had turned away and remained silent, I was privileged, and I was the persecutor.
The Violence of Unity
A few days ago, I saw a widely forwarded manifesto on the internet about non-division (不分化宣言), and I heard many people saying they want to acknowledge different political demands — in the spirit, probably, of seeking common ground while setting aside differences. I can’t agree with such a view. In my opinion, it’s not true that if we all oppose totalitarian rule we will avoid being divided and will therefore be able to build solidarity.
In particular, we cannot view the appeals of Han people and Uyghurs simply as reflecting different political aspirations. Saying such a thing means entertaining the illusion of equality between Han and Uyghurs, and it obscures the oppressive power relationship between Han and Uyghurs.
A few days ago, I saw a comment shared by Zhang Chenchen that I felt put it quite rightly: “China is a Han supremacist state. Han people’s solidarity with Xinjiang has to be built based on this realization.” Only by acknowledging this Han-centric oppression, only by acknowledging this division, can there be true unity. The unity many people are talking about now is a unity created forcibly by the Han people as they take up their own demands and interests. To put it more harshly, it is violence in the name of unity.
Since this movement began, I’ve personally encountered a lot of Han-centrism overseas (largely from men). Many protesters have been courageous enough to chant slogans about Xi Jinping and the Communist Party stepping down, but there is strong opposition to the flag of East Turkestan. Many people even openly distributed an imperialist-style anti-secession declaration. This is not an isolated case. A friend of mine even attended an event where she spent the whole night arguing with the anti-secessionist men.
In situations like this, it’s not possible to simply say in a conciliatory manner that we have differing political aspirations. We absolutely must acknowledge that the political aspirations of many Han Chinese are oppressive political aspirations. Here, I’m referring not just to the openly anti-secessionist Han supremacists. I think the larger problem with this movement is that it acknowledges that the Uyghur people are oppressed, but at the same time, whether intentionally or unintentionally, ignores this fact in the movement itself. This sort of behavior is a form of more concealed, and yet more dangerous, violence.
Many people are aware of the situation in Xinjiang and support the demands of the Uyghurs. The problem is that many Han Chinese unconsciously feel that closing the camps should be a demand made by the Uyghurs. After I had shouted several times for the closure of the camps, someone asked me if I was from Xinjiang.
The question was well-intentioned, but behind it lay a subconscious assumption: that only Xinjiang people could care about Xinjiang.
I also heard this sort of argument: that it is important to speak out for the Uyghurs because the Uyghur present is the future of the Han Chinese, and that speaking out for the Uyghurs is also speaking out for ourselves. As a political mobilization strategy, such an idea has some merit. But it is also highly problematic. The subtext here is that the Han speak for the freedom of the Han and the Uyghurs speak for the freedom of the Uyghurs — and only when the fate of the Uyghurs touches on the fate of the Han do the latter need to speak up for the former. The majority of people are still focused on speaking out against dictatorship and against the lockdowns, and the problems of the Uyghurs are actually marginalized.
I want to emphasize here that for the Han Chinese, Uyghur freedom and human rights should not be a secondary demand of this movement. Rather, it should be the main demand of this movement. In the 1970s, there was a black women’s rights organization in the United States called the Combahee River Collective, which once said: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” At the bottom of the pyramid of oppression created by imperialism is the black woman, and only when the black woman is free will all people be free. Only under such circumstances is the system of oppression completely destroyed.
Conversely, no one else’s freedom over that of black women can bring about the freedom of black women. Moreover, the freedom of white women is quite possibly based on the foundation of the oppression of black women.
By the same token, it must be recognized that in China today, with its political regime, the supposed notion of the Chinese nation (中華民族) is based on the oppression of minority groups, including the Uyghurs. If Han Chinese protesters today believe that all people should be equal and free, then they should shout the slogan, “Free the Uyghurs!”
If we stop at opposition against lockdowns or limit ourselves to fighting for the freedom of the Han Chinese, then this freedom still presupposes the oppression of minorities. In this situation, I don’t think there can be differing opinions, or seeking common ground while reserving differences — because these demands are not “differences” of equality, but rather a relationship of oppressing and being oppressed.
When the Chinese Communist Party itself began the revolution, it too set its sights on “great liberation” (大解放). But in the fact of differing demands, so-called, the Party proposed class liberation as the chief one, after which other demands, such as women’s liberation, would follow. But history and reality tell us this is not how things go. If there continues to be a predominance of the majority in these anti-totalitarian protests, or violence by the majority against minorities, then victory could only mean the replacement of one oppressive regime with another.
Never has there been such a thing as the “Chinese” (中國人), or just “us” (我們). The movement should stand not with the Chinese, but rather with the Uyghurs. It should stand all minorities in Xinjiang, with the most, with all minority groups in Xinjiang, with the people who are most oppressed.
Seeing People for Who They Are
The anger that shouts, “Step down, Communist Party! Step down, Xi Jinping!” is plain, precious and courageous. But this anger needs to go further. If all it can see is the Communist Party and Xi Jinping, then it is a cheap form of anger. Many people have voiced their emotions at rallies. I too have felt moved by the courage of the people who took to the streets in China, as I have been by supporters overseas. But in such emotions, I cannot see a future.
As a feminist, this is not the first time I have felt this way. My mind is filled with vehemence at the beating incident in Tangshan, and the woman chained in Xuzhou. Anger like that can be valuable, but what happens afterward? There are many men among those who spoke up in the case of Tangshan and Xuzhou. Do these men understand that these cases of gender violence that anger them have the same roots as the sexual harassment that is so common in our lives? Do they realize that they are the beneficiaries, and even the oppressors, of a patriarchal society? If we do not question the social and cultural structures that lie behind, how far can our anger at the perpetrators of violence really take us?
Consider for just a moment the inspiring nationalist struggles against colonialism that unfolded around the world in the early 20th century. Is the world a better place now? Are the people of the world free? Nationalism is the ghost of imperialism. For feminists, treating Xi Jinping and the Communist Party as enemies may be a short-term strategic approach, but treating Xi Jinping and the Communist Party as the ultimate enemy is short-sighted and wrong. We have bigger fish to fry.
So I believe that in this and possible future protests, we should no longer train our eyes only on China or the country. We should stop asking what the future of this country is. And we should stop taking the current nation-state as the foundation of our demands. We must see the people. We must see concrete human beings. We must ask ourselves what kind of movement and revolution can make people free, can make people equal. Seeing human beings for who they are is the weapon we can use to defeat dehumanizing regimes and cultures. Seeing human beings for who they are should also be the ultimate goal of the movement. Seeing human beings for who they are, and seeing the differences in people, is the basis of true solidarity.
As a Han Chinese feminist, I am well aware of the brutal tactics of this regime. Even for Han Chinese outside of China, attending any sort of commemoration event can be dangerous. This article is not meant to deny the oppression and suffering of ordinary Han Chinese. Nor is it meant to deny the courage of the ordinary people who took to the streets at home and abroad (especially at home). Nor is it meant to make everyone rush to the barricades. We have heard a great deal already about the beating of protesters in China after their arrests. Many of them have not been heard from and are still missing. I just believe it’s important that we reflect on the movement before us and as it unfolds in the future, and that we recognize the power issues that exist in the movement itself.
I hope those overseas protesters who are already bravely chanting, “Down with the Xi Communist Party!” and those social media accounts that are providing slogans for the protesters, can also add, “Close the concentration camps in Xinjiang!” to their demands.
As for others, if there is no way for you to stand up, then please start seeing them as concrete human beings. Start by learning about the Uyghur victims in Urumqi. Learn their names and stories. Because of the powerful nature of China’s propaganda machine, many Han Chinese in China do not know or even acknowledge the existence of the concentration camps in Xinjiang. If more people come together to see specific people, perhaps they can help open this black box of information.
If you cannot speak out publicly for the Uyghurs, please at least pay attention to Xinjiang and to the Uyghurs. There have been many media reports about their stories and their hardships, and these are easily searchable. There is the Xinjiang Victims Database and the Xinjiang Documentation Project, both websites where you can see their individual stories. If a protest is being held in mourning, then truly mourn them, and invite Uyghurs and other minorities who are willing to speak to do so. This is something the rally in New York City on October 29th did really well.
Slogans, symbols, and political demands are not as important as individual experiences and stories. Please listen more to the stories and voices of Uyghurs. Pay more attention to other minority groups — and listen to their voices.
I See You Now
After I returned from the memorial service, I tried to find the names of some of the victims that I knew so far.
A tweet by blogger Abduweli Ayup, and a CNN report on the relatives of the deceased provided additional information about some of the victims, including the five family members who died on the 19th floor:
Kamarnisahan Abdulrahman (mother)
The father and the oldest son are currently in a concentration camp in Xinjiang. According to CNN, the father’s name is Ali Matniyaz and the son’s name is Yiliyas Abudulrahman; according to a tweet from Abduweli Ayup, the father’s name is Eli Metniyaz and the son’s name is Ilyas Eli. The family’s oldest daughter and son, Sharapat Mohamad Ali and Mohamad, who are currently living in Turkey, have spoken out through overseas media and asked people to listen to their voices.
Among the victims was also Elzat Eziz, age 14, and his 21-year-old sister, her surname unknown. And there was Gulbahar and her two children.
Concerning the number of people killed in the fire, the official number is 10. But I have seen reports that as many as 40 may have died. In China’s machinery of violence, there may be very little you can do. Someone surnamed “Su” from Urumqi’s Shuimogou District was detained by authorities the day after the fire for questioning the death toll. But at the very least we can continue to pay attention — to pay attention to information about the victims, about “Su” in detention, about the voices of family members, about Uyghurs who survived the fire.
A few days ago, I read another post on the internet that called on Han Chinese to pay attention to the Xinjiang issue. Because there was no link to the article, only text, I’m unsure of the source — and apologize for that. But at the end of the post, there was a passage included from “Facing the Xinjiang Crisis, What an Ordinary Person Can Do in 2020,” an article by the Uyghur blogger Humar Issac. The passage moved me, and I share it with you here:
You don’t have to write a heartfelt confession. You don’t have to write something to thorough that no one from the extreme left to the extreme right can find any fault in what you say. All we want is to be seen. Because we’ve been invisible for so long, and because being seen can actually improve the situation of at least some of the victims. So all you have to say is, “I see, I see you now.” That’s good enough. Will we meet where there is no darkness? I don’t know. And to be honest, I don’t really care. All I care about is that today, right now, we see each other’s glow from a distance, we see each other.