College Students in U.S. Join Protests Against China’s “Zero-COVID” Policy

As satellite protests expand onto college campuses in the U.S., a Chinese international graduate student shares his reason for speaking out.
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  • Protests in response to the Chinese Communist Party regime are popping up across the world, including college campuses in the United States.
  • Demonstrators are devastated by a deadly fire in Urumqi, which they believe to be a result of overly restrictive COVID-19 lockdowns.
  • Safety is a real concern for those protesting against the Chinese government in China and abroad.
  • Ran Zhu, a Chinese student from New York University, shares his simultaneous love and hopes for the future of his home country.

Human rights protests against the Chinese Communist Party's rigorous response to the COVID-19 pandemic and strict lockdown measures are spreading to college campuses across the United States.

Schools such as the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Harvard, Duke, and New York University (NYU) have seen demonstrations protesting the country's lockdown policy and vigils being held for victims of a deadly fire on Nov. 24 in Urumqi, China.

According to The Associated Press, videos of the tragedy in Urumqi showed "an arc of water from a distant fire truck falling short of the fire." Some said that "fire engines had been blocked by pandemic control barriers or by cars stranded after their owners were put in quarantine."

While the details of the tragedy remain nebulous, China's state media reported 10 people died, and many in China and the U.S. blame China's severe COVID-19 restrictions for their deaths.

CNN interviewed a person who lived in the building, who claimed households that had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past month were locked by authorities from the outside. Others who tested negative were only permitted to leave the building with the help of community members.

One speaker at a Nov. 28 vigil at Duke University summed up the current sentiment that has led to protests around the world: "I can't mourn in silence. I feel anger burning in my heart because I think no one, no soul, no light, deserves being locked in their own home, and suffering in a fire because of pandemic restrictions."

At Columbia University in New York, nearly 500 students and New Yorkers also gathered on Nov. 28 to show solidarity with the larger protest movement.

BestColleges spoke with Ran Zhu, a Chinese international graduate student studying global affairs and public policy at NYU, to learn more about the protests and how U.S. students can support the movement.

Finally Speaking Out

Originally from Nanjing, China, Zhu lived in the country for a little over a decade before moving to Ontario, Canada. He moved to the U.S. for graduate school last November.

The first thing to understand, Zhu said, is that the recent wave of protests are layered. International students in the U.S. are protesting because of the fire and because of the injustices of China's zero-COVID policy. But they're also protesting because of China's "legacy of human rights issues," including press freedoms.

Zhu said when he first heard about the protests, he became emotional that they were led by so many young people, often younger than himself.

"I'm in the comfort of not being in China physically. I haven't been to China for four years. What drew me was just this immediate sort of emotional reaction to it. I truly just wanted to cry when I read about all these protests, looked at all these powerful images that were coming out of China," he said.

Zhu told BestColleges that he decided to speak out as a "leap of faith" after he declined to be involved in the initial wave of NYU-student protests for fear of being photographed.

"I wasn't [at the protest] despite wanting to be part of this and seeing so much of this happening — there is a safety component. It did take me a lot of courage to actually say, ‘I want to be interviewed for this … Let's actually take that leap of faith and speak out …' So I feel like this is giving back in my own way," he explained.

Growing up in China, Zhu said he was taught that speaking out against your government meant that you were a traitor.

"I can safely say that everyone that's protesting — they love China," he said. "But we've been sort of brainwashed [into] thinking that being anti-party is being anti-country, which I think is just not true."

"We love where we came from, but we also want democracy."

Information Available in China Limited

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are all banned in China. The most popular way to communicate is through WeChat, described by The Citizen Lab, as subject to "political surveillance."

Zhu said that many of his own family members remain apathetic to the cause because the Chinese government is censoring information about the protests so heavily.

"The way that the policies and information is designed [is] that you're just not exposed to it. As soon as some kind of political statement is put out on WeChat, which is the main social media that people in China use, it's gone. So it's not that they don't want to be exposed to it, it's that they just haven't been."

However, Zhu says that despite the government's best efforts to curtail information, those in China are finding ways around the restrictions.

The New York Times reported that videos manipulated with filters and stitched together can overwhelm the country's artificial intelligence software that screens WeChat content.

"I refuse to use WeChat … because I know it's heavily monitored," Zhu said. "My mom will be very annoyed, but I refuse to use WeChat to talk to her. So I will only use iMessage because I do think it's safer. I do use Instagram to talk to some of my friends with Chinese origin."

Part of Something Bigger

Connecting with fellow Chinese international students has helped Zhu feel less alone in speaking out against the Chinese government, he told BestColleges.

"I think there's a reason why so much of Chinese academia likes to leave China because I feel like the way the education system is designed, it's under a certain veil of control," he explained.

"Seeing that so many Chinese doctoral students … have the same ideology of wanting to speak up and, in that sense, I feel like it doesn't really matter where you are in the world, we are united."

When asked what other students in the U.S. could do to help support their Chinese international counterparts, Zhu said he wanted them to ask questions and remain curious.

"If you have Chinese friends, ask them questions. Ask them what's going on … I think that's the first step, a very important step. I don't think people ask questions enough nowadays."

"I think the understanding piece, the education piece, is the first part. If you truly don't understand what's going on, then you're really of no help," he said.

Difficult Post-Grad Decisions

After graduation, Zhu said he is "not closed off" to the idea of returning to China. However, he worries about his safety if he goes back.

"I'm always concerned about safety and just if I'll be safe there," he said. "That's not to say I don't feel like I fit right in. I feel like I fit right in whenever I go back to China. It's on the docket; nothing is written in pen."

As for the country he loves, Zhu says he is proud of young people in China who are speaking out despite never being able to see what a real democracy is like.

"[The Chinese Communist Party has] used the word democracy as a buzzword for decades and decades now, but I don't think they truly embrace the essence of that word. The younger people are really seeing the meaning of that now," he said.

"I see this as a younger people's movement. That's not to say that older people are not involved, but I feel like the younger generation, because with globalization, they're more exposed to democratic ideas, and just what the world outside of this wall looks like."