On Halloween, dozens of people pulled on the full-body white protective suits worn by healthcare workers on the front lines of China’s draconian “zero-covid” policy. But this wasn’t in China, this was New York City. And instead of guarding against the virus, the suits were serving as a protest symbol, and for many of the Chinese activists, a disguise to shield their identities.
To a bystander, it may have looked like just one more piece of theater in New York’s raucous Halloween parade, but for the Chinese students and dissidents dressed as “da bai” or “big white,” the colloquial term for China’s covid workers, it was a high-wire act of protest. They carried signs calling for ending zero-covid and the dethroning of a man who doesn’t take well to criticism: China’s President Xi Jinping.
“We’re trying to protest, I mean, many things, but what mostly gathered us together is a common want for freedom and democracy for China,” said He, a Chinese graduate student at New York University who spoke on the condition of partial anonymity, using her last name. The Halloween march was the latest episode in a wave of dissent that has gone global following a rare and bold act of political protest in Beijing. Three weeks ago, a lone protester took to a Beijing bridge and unfurled a pair of banners calling for a nationwide strike to remove Xi and end zero-covid. The “Bridge Man” protest came at a particularly sensitive time: the week of the high-profile Communist Party Congress that granted Xi a third term.
The nationwide strike didn’t materialize, but the Bridge Man set off a brief flurry of supportive social media posts within China before censors shut them down — and a much wider response from Chinese activists outside the country’s borders. On 350 campuses worldwide, Chinese students have put up posters echoing the Bridge Man’s calls, and protests have been held in five other cities beyond New York. This is all according to CitizensDailyCN, a group of overseas Chinese tracking the dissent and facilitating it via online platforms including Instagram and Telegram.
While activism on American college campuses is routine, Chinese citizens working and studying overseas take on enormous risks for speaking out against the Chinese government. Numerous reports in recent years have shown that the government closely monitors students and dissidents abroad, and that these people may face threats and arrest if they return to China.
All of which means that the recent protests around the world — even a gathering of a few dozen Chinese students and dissidents in hazmat costumes at a New York parade — are significant.
“I’m really inspired,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch who is based in New York City. “I knew, because I talked to students over the years, that people felt repressed, they feel very afraid, they have ideas but they were afraid to talk about it, but I didn’t expect that there would be so many of them.”
The movement is using creative tactics, both high- and low-tech — secretive communications and those white protective costumes — to mask identities and evade the ever-watchful eye of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But the long arm of China’s repression has grown longer and more ominous under Xi’s rule, and if the protesters’ identities are discovered, the consequences could be severe.
Protest playbook: organizing dissent outside of China
Successful social movements are usually built around a sense of community and solidarity, often forged through late-night strategy sessions and rousing marches. For the Chinese activists, the playbook had to be inverted.
CitizensDailyCN, also known as Voice of CN, one of the groups helping to facilitate the recent activism, was formed over Telegram, a WhatsApp-like app that has some strong privacy features. The group’s members describe themselves as “young Chinese who have been continuously fighting against the totalitarian CCP government.” They first got together more than two years before the Bridge Man appeared, on the night that a doctor named Li Wenliang died.
Dr. Li was an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who shared news that a SARS-like virus was spreading in Wuhan in late December 2019. He was summoned by the police to sign a letter saying he had made “false comments,” and his death by covid a few weeks later turned him into something of a martyr — a potent symbol of the restrictions on freedom of speech and the government’s early cover-up of the pandemic. It also led to one of the greatest outpourings of anger and grief seen on Chinese social media in recent years — and the birth of a new anti-CCP group overseas.
Even as they formed a strategy, the group’s members hid their identities — not just from the outside world, but even from each other.
“Many of us still have ties in China and/or live in China, so it’s critical that we remain anonymous, not only for the safety of our own lives and those around us but also for this platform to continue to exist,” one of the organizers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Grid over Telegram. Other recent online initiatives for democracy and freedom of expression in China, including a crowdsourced archive of censored articles and a list of protests in China, had died out when their founders were arrested by the Chinese government.
The group turned to another movement for inspiration: the 2019 Hong Kong protests that brought millions to the streets. That movement offered two key lessons. First, instead of having a core leader, their activism would be decentralized; any individual organizer might be less of a target for punishment, and no one arrest would tank the movement. Another key lesson — this in the low-tech category: use posters as an initial form of protest. It seemed a simple idea, but posters placed in public spaces allowed activists to share messages with a wider public without venturing on to closely monitored social media sites.
In the growing protests inspired by Beijing’s Bridge Man, overseas Chinese students have hung posters on their campuses calling for democracy in China, an end to zero-covid and an end to Xi’s rule. Many have donned face masks to hide their identities. Chinese students Grid spoke to said they had taken care to place their posters without attracting attention from other Chinese students who might not support the cause.
After hanging their posters, they’ve sent photos of them to CitizensDailyCN and other Chinese activism Instagram pages. These Instagram accounts have become galleries of sorts, showcasing the posters and displaying them in one place, while allowing those submitting their poster photos to remain anonymous. And they’re getting a wide audience: The CitizensDailyCN account has nearly 40,000 followers.
After “the poster movement” — as the activists dubbed it — spread to universities across the world, the Voice of CN organizers decided to step it up a notch. They created five regional groups on Telegram where overseas Chinese could gather to share information and plans for in-person protests. These chat groups, titled “MyDuty,” helped spawn the in-person protests in New York, London, Toronto and several other cities.
Here, too, the activists have operated in the shadows to avoid retribution from the government. Although anyone can view the Telegram groups, which are publicly listed, a scroll through the New York-based group shows that most members are using aliases — among participants are people named “tofu” and “Random Lawyer.” The app itself provides important safety features: Telegram changed its settings in response to the Hong Kong protests so that users can delink their telephone numbers from their username. That way a police officer who has someone’s number, which is attached to their real name in phone company records accessible to the government, can’t easily connect them to their alias.
The MyDuty groups have grown quickly. Since they were formed a couple of weeks ago, 3,000 people have now joined. There’s a clear appetite for activism, despite the inherent risks.
What happens when protesters are discovered by the government?
So far, in this latest show of dissent, the CitizensDailyCN organizer told Grid, “we have not heard of any government action on organizers overseas.” But the threat is always lurking.
The Chinese government is known to keep a close eye on overseas dissidents and university campuses. Wang noted that Chinese student unions played a role in supporting the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests from outside the country. “So the government has a tradition of fear of any kind of opposition stemming from abroad.” Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, clubs on overseas campuses that host cultural events around Chinese holidays, promote the party line on student WeChat groups and in some cases act as vehicles for the foreign ministry to keep tabs on Chinese students.
The government increasingly wields technology to monitor Chinese activists abroad. A law student at St. John’s University in New York told ProPublica that his Telegram was hacked — and the Chinese government has been linked to the hacking of human rights groups and dissidents abroad in recent years. According to government procurement documents analyzed by the New York Times, Chinese security agents are also using investigative software to dig up information on overseas activists and track their social media accounts.
Individual students have also been pressured by the Chinese government to become informants. For instance, a Chinese intelligence agent tried to recruit a Chinese graduate student at the University of Georgia to spy on other activists, ProPublica reported. But a strong sense of nationalism also motivates some Chinese students to monitor and report on their classmates — whether they are asked to or not.
“At around 2 a.m. I received a message from a mainland classmate. He was like, ‘I’m watching you,’” a Chinese university student in Australia told Human Rights Watch. She said she had attended a campus rally in support of democracy in Hong Kong — and she assumed that’s what had provoked the threat. When it comes to China’s most sensitive subjects — Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong or anything to do with democracy in China — Chinese students overseas expect that their peers may be reporting any remarks or actions that cross the party line.
For Chinese students and other dissidents overseas, any comments or demonstrations related to these subjects can lead to harsh consequences.
“The Chinese authorities and the Hong Kong authorities have devised these kinds of legal weapons, as they call it, to go after people,” said Laura Harth, a campaign director at Safeguard Defenders, an NGO based in Madrid. “So one thing is obviously the establishment of extraterritorial applications in their national security laws or provisions, which make people liable for things that are completely legal — for example, putting up a poster in the U.S. or tweeting something in the U.S. … If those people were to travel back to China, they might be liable for prosecution and conviction.”
A freshman at a university in New York who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Grid that her friend had learned this the hard way. “Because a friend of mine made some rude comments while studying abroad, he was taken away by the police when he got off the plane and returned to China,” she said. Given that she has been participating in the current dissent, putting up anti-Xi posters at her campus, she said, “I am also worried that I will be taken away by the police when I return to my country.”
Even Twitter posts can lead to harsh punishment. In 2019, a University of Minnesota student was detained and sentenced to six months in jail upon his return to China because “he used his Twitter account to post more than 40 comments denigrating a national leader’s image and indecent pictures,” according to Axios reporting on the court document.
Wang is often asked by activists whether it is safe for them to return home to China, and she says it’s hard to give a clear answer — because the government is inconsistent in its response. Some may get away with their activism, and others will be jailed. For her part, Harth said once an activist has gone public, it’s best not to return. “I understand it’s a very difficult choice,” she told Grid. “I think that’s one thing that people need to take into account. If you’re involved in activism, and speaking out, going back to China is not an option.”
Even if Chinese activists remain outside their country, the government has ways of pressuring them to stop their activism. Chinese security agents often threaten activists’ families back home. After creating a Twitter account parodying Xi, a Chinese student in Australia told the New York Times that police brought her father to the local police station. The police officer called her from her father’s phone and warned her to delete the account. In a video of the interaction, the officer asks the student when her visa needs to be renewed back in China — a not-so-subtle threat.
He, the New York City protester, told Grid she was aware of the risks for her family back in China. “I don’t think I’m ever going to go back,” she said. “But I do still worry for my parents who are still working and also my grandparents and everyone else.”
Chinese security services have also been known to physically threaten overseas activists. In March, the Department of Justice charged five people in three cases of acting as agents of the Chinese government to spy on and harass Chinese dissidents in the U.S.
“I felt I wasn’t alone”
Given all these challenges, how long can this latest protest movement last? Certainly one of the group’s core demands — the removal of Xi — seems inconceivable. After the party congress, Xi is now squarely at the helm for his third term, surrounded by loyalists. It’s hard to imagine anything unseating him.
Wang has seen this cycle many times — a movement grows and then fizzles out. “Just given the degree of repression in China, people feel so powerless, they decide to move on,” she said. “There’s no justice to seek, you know, there’s no way you can challenge the power.”
But zero-covid, one of the core issues that has driven unrest — in and outside of China — has not gone away and may continue driving overseas activism forward. The government has stuck with the policy, and its consequences continue to draw attention — and anger — on social media. Over the past week, people have been sharing videos of workers at Foxconn’s iPhone campus in the city of Zhengzhou, which employs some 200,000 people, fleeing after facing grim conditions under quarantine during an outbreak there.
For many overseas protesters, zero-covid is a clear example of why China needs change — so that people can have some say in their lives. Wang said the issue might help sustain the movement because it has had a much wider impact on people across China — including the families of overseas students — than other issues that have provoked dissent: “The zero-covid policy really affects the students. I mean, I never felt, you know, the Xinjiang or Hong Kong issue affected the students in the way the covid policy affects them.”
At the New York protest, the salience of zero-covid to the activists was clear — abundantly so in their choice of costume. One of the main participants, with the pseudonym James, wrote on Telegram after the protest, “When I looked back and saw so many kindred spirits and bystanders cheering for us, I really felt that I wasn’t alone.” He added, “I hope there comes a day when we don’t have to be in disguise, when we can speak out openly.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.