On Tuesday evening, hundreds gathered outside the Chinese Consulate in Manhattan to demand an end to China’s zero-COVID policies and restrictions on freedom. It was the second demonstration in two days across the city, with hundreds more flocking to Low Library on Columbia University’s campus the night before.
The protests were not officially affiliated, but repeated similar refrains in Mandarin, including, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” and “Xi Jingping, step down!”
These chants have been in use during the ongoing demonstrations across China that began last week after a deadly fire in Urumqi, a city in the northwestern Xinjiang province where residents have been on lockdown for over 100 days. Activists say strict COVID-19 lockdown measures prevented residents from escaping the fire — a claim local government authorities have denied. A week in, these demonstrations have spread to numerous provinces across China and over a dozen cities globally. For nearly three years, zero-COVID policies have required local authorities to close businesses and schools and have forced tens of millions of people into isolation.
Protesters in New York City, which has the largest Chinese population of any city outside of Asia, were thousands of miles away from where rallies originated. But many in attendance on Monday and Tuesday night continue to be directly affected by conditions in China.
On Tuesday night in particular, the diversity of the Chinese population in New York was on full display.
“I’m Chinese, it is my duty to come [to the protest],” said one student on Tuesday night. She requested anonymity out of concern that the government would retaliate against her family, who still live in the province where she grew up.
In the past week, local authorities across China have set up checkpoints to search mobile devices for signs of protest activity, according to the LA Times.
“My mom is still locked in her apartment,” she said. “What if the fire happened in my mom’s apartment? What if she died in that fire? Her front door was also locked.”
New York City protest organizers on both nights were surprised by the number of people in attendance.
Zero-COVID policies have prevented the same student from seeing her family for the entirety of the pandemic. She says skyrocketing flight costs and lengthy quarantine mandates have increased the cost of returning home to around $10,000. Still, it wasn’t until the fire in Urumqi that she felt compelled to protest.
“The fact that so many people came today is something we didn’t expect,” said a Chinese undergraduate student who helped organize Monday evening’s protest. As was the case for many of the initial protests in China, the gathering was supposed to be a small vigil honoring the fatalities in Urumqi. But word quickly spread through the Telegram messaging app, and eventually, more than 200 people showed up with candles and signs.
“Tonight, we can see that not everyone has the same views or the same demands,” the organizer said. “But the fact that so many people are standing here because they want to participate in this matter and want to support the protest in China — I think that is already very valuable.”
On Tuesday night in particular, the diversity of the Chinese population in New York was on full display: Protesters brandished signs calling for freedom for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and ethnic minorities. Older attendees invoked imagery of the last uprising of this scale in China, the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Members of the younger generation have not witnessed anti-government dissent of this magnitude in their lifetimes.
But unlike most of his peers, Ankar, 23, is no stranger to dissent.
“We used to go to protests all the time,” Ankar said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Ankar was born in Urumqi and is Uyghur, an ethnic minority that has faced violent persecution from the Chinese government. At seven years old, Ankar’s family fled to Washington, D.C., after his father received threats from the government for his writing about the history of Uyghur sovereignty. Since then, Ankar has continued to protest against the Chinese government from exile in the United States.
After sharing his story to the protesters through a megaphone he had a sobering thought.
“Even now, me saying my name, there is anxiety,” Ankar said, standing on the outskirts of the crowd after his speech. “You would feel like it doesn’t affect you, right? Because you live away from it, but you can’t escape the grasp of the Chinese government.”
Ankar’s extended family is still in Xinjiang, and they frequently receive intimidating calls and texts from the government. But Ankar was optimistic and energized on Tuesday night.
“The big difference there between the protests that we used to have and the protests that we’re having now, is that back then it was just us Uyghurs. It felt like we were getting nowhere, and we felt alone, ” he said, recalling the protests he had gone to throughout his childhood. “But today, coming out here, I’m seeing so many people of diverse backgrounds. I don’t feel alone anymore.”
Additional reporting by Sajina Shrestha.