The reporters who contributed to this story were granted anonymity out of concern for their safety. Read the full-length editor’s note here.
China’s first nationwide protests in decades calling for the termination of the zero-COVID policy and democratic freedoms in China have spread overseas, including UC Berkeley.
More than 200 people gathered for a campus candlelight vigil Nov. 28 to remember the victims of the Ürümqi fire, but the memorial materials and informational displays were partially removed the next day.
“It was simply spontaneous for me and the hundreds of thousands of other protests all over the globe to participate in this ‘White Paper Revolution’ or ‘A4 Revolution,’ ” said Max, a campus freshman from China and a vigil attendee who only gave their first name out of fear of retaliation.
Max said the anger and disappointment of having experienced the day-to-day censorship, surveillance and “COVID prevention restrictions” have built up in the past few years and finally reached a breaking point that was sparked by the Ürümqi fire.
The deadly residential fire in Ürümqi killed at least 10 — mostly Uyghur people — Nov. 24, allegedly as a result of strict lockdown restrictions.
Videos of people screaming and trying to escape the fire by jumping out of the windows as the apartment building is sealed to enforce lockdowns went viral on the Internet.
The incident generated national outrage with protests in major cities and more than 100 colleges in China the following days, according to an Initium Media article. Overseas Chinese students and supporters across the world also stood in solidarity by holding vigils and protests.
UC Berkeley students organize campus memorial, vigil
The campus vigil began at Sather Gate at 7 p.m. Students and supporters silently lit candles and offered white flowers, setting up altars on the ground with signs displaying “声援乌鲁木齐 (In solidarity with Ürümqi),” “沒有暴徒 只有暴政 (No rioters, only tyranny)” and “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Later, songs and chants broke the silence of the vigil, including “不自由、毋寧死 (Give me liberty or give me death),” “習近平下台 (Xi Jinping, step down),” “共產黨下台 (Chinese Communist Party, step down)” and “釋放被捕群眾 (Release arrested protestors).”
Participants also held up white papers or signs with written slogans like “Fight China’s Tyranny.” A student carried a Winnie the Pooh stuffed toy that symbolizes censorship in China.
Additional banners echoed demands to end government-mandated COVID-19 lockdowns, PCR testing requirements and requests for food and voting rights.
“In China, you are afraid of retaliation if you publicly show your demands… with this white paper, everybody would know what you are talking about,” said Vic, another vigil attendee who only gave their first name out of fear of retaliation. “It is very creative and also very brave.”
Vic said the first day when students took to the streets in China inspired him to participate in the movement. He added that he is particularly touched by the video of a man saying “it is my duty” to a reporter in an interview, saying that it appeals to peoples’ obligation and recalls the same scene that occurred in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
While different communities call for various specific demands, core demands of protests include the termination of the strict zero-COVID policy, the release of protestors and the assurance of free speech, free press and free assembly, according to Max and Vic.
Similar to many attendees, Zachary, a campus graduate student from Hong Kong who only gave their first name out of fear of retaliation, said he heard about the event on Instagram. He added that it is dangerous for Hongkongers to take to the streets due to the National Security Law; therefore, one way to support it is by using social media to educate people about what is going on.
Victor, a Chinese citizen from Shenzhen who only gave his first name out of fear of retaliation, said he came from the South Bay to attend the vigil, adding that he witnessed the 2019 Hong Kong pro-democracy movement and expressed hope that this time, pro-democracy activists will win. He said Chinese people in the United States can advocate more to turn technology from a government tool of control into a tool that people can use to secure their rights.
“Hongkongers have shown a good example … now it’s our turn to hold the torch to finish the job that has not been done 33 years ago,” Victor said.
Sonamtso, a Tibetan activist who attended the vigil and does not use her legal last name, called the level of sincerity through the popcorn-style chants of protest slogans “empowering.”
“I didn’t even need to know every single thing that was said,” Sonamtso said. “It is more so that this overwhelming sense of solidarity and the feeling that was present in that space.”
Sonamtso also marched around campus and downtown Berkeley along with a hundred mostly Tibetans who gathered on Thursday and Friday in solidarity with the people of China and to show that the fight against the Chinese authoritarian regime affects a multitude of communities.
The aftermath of the campus vigil
Students left the memorial altar at Sather Gate after the vigil ended at 9 p.m.. Campus graduate student Kate, a vigil attendee who only gave their first name out of fear of retaliation, said the candles were extinguished before people left the scene, but attendees had left the flowers and cardboard out so that students who were intimidated to attend the vigil in person could still pay their respects the next day.
However, on Tuesday at around 11:27 p.m., an exchange student from mainland China claimed in a WeChat group that they had “burned the anti-CCP materials at the memorial site,” according to a screenshot of conversations provided by a Chinese student who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
Though the student’s identity has been widely circulated, they stated that they did not set the fire. The student added that they passed through the gate, saw the fire and made a prank saying that they did it.
According to Max, most of the memorial setup was still there Tuesday afternoon, including the cardboard posters, flowers and several candles.
Campus senior John Brubaker said he witnessed a fire burning a blue and white paper sign at around 6:40 p.m. Tuesday. He stomped it out immediately to avoid it spreading to other signs.
Brubaker said items had not been removed from the altar at that time, adding that he does not think that the fire was lit by the candles because they were far enough from each other.
However, the signs and Winnie the Pooh at the memorial altar were gone on Wednesday, according to a photo included in a Reddit post written by Kate Thursday. The post received more than 104,000 views as of Friday.
It remains unclear whether the fire was set intentionally. UCPD is investigating the incident as a case of unlawful fire or vandalism, according to UCPD Police Captain Sabrina Reich. She noted that UCPD was notified of burn marks along the base of the Sather Gate Thursday at 5:20 p.m and encourages anyone with information about this incident to contact 510-642-6760.
Students gathered again at Sather Gate Thursday to mourn the victims and repair the altar with informational posters.
Kate, who documented this incident in the Reddit post, said it was unexpected and was an “emotional shock” for her. She added that although posters for the movement have been taken down before, this occasion was different since Sather Gate is a campus landmark of more than 100 years and the fire left burn marks on it.
“My intention is to tell people on campus that this has happened. I basically wrote it in English because I would like to inform non-Chinese speaking people on what is going on campus because I realize a lot of them might not know,” Kate said. “The comment section is a little bit angrier than I expected, but I’m glad this is getting attention.”
Though the post originally included the name of the person who claimed and later denied having set the fire, the Reddit moderator requested Kate conceal the individual’s identity. The comment section of the post has been modified as of press time. Kate said her original intention was not to start a “witch hunt” but to prompt an apology from whoever may have set the fire.
She noted that to set fire to a memorial for people killed by a fire is “a huge insult,” and another vigil was held Thursday as a reaction to the incident.
“It is so horrible to hear what happened to the beautiful vigil that was there. It goes without saying that these are not unique incidents,” Sonamtso said. “Intimidation, even assault, these are all things that people in our movement have had to deal with for decades.”
Max alleged that he has seen Chinese Communist Party followers say they are “furious to see these protesting posters and have hence angrily torn them down” in social media posts at higher education institutions including UC Santa Barbara and the University of Oxford.
He added that he was frustrated with the specific individuals from China who Max alleged have such “arrogant disrespect” for the freedom of speech in Western countries.
“It is only other Chinese people who would turn their backs on Chinese citizens who are stepping up and protesting for a brighter and freer future for all of us,” Max said.