PROTESTS: ‘It’s The First Time I’ve Seen This in China.’

Sliding through the tight crowd at the vigil on Urumqi Road, I discovered a small memorial: candles lit on the ground and wreaths of flowers laid in tribute to the victims of the fire. Some messages were also written on signs: “We don’t forget: Guiyang, Urumqi, Henan, Xi’an.” These were the places where people had died during confinement. They hadn’t been able to get medical care; in one case, there had been a bus accident on the way to a quarantine center. Their deaths, their suffering, was now melding into everyone’s anger. It was becoming a cause.

The people at the vigil were mostly in their twenties or thirties. They felt walled off from the rest of the world, literally and otherwise. They chanted: “Health code, fuck you!” They sang the Chinese national anthem, and a revolutionary song that begins “Arise! Ye who refuse to be slaves!” In April, during the Shanghai lockdown, those words were censored on Weibo, China’s Twitter. The revolutionary was now, apparently, counterrevolutionary, or too revolutionary.

A Uyghur man in his thirties told me: “No freedom here.” He was from Urumqi and has relatives who lived in the building where the tragedy took place. “The building was locked down. They survived,” he said, referring to his extended family, “but they were terrified. I’m a man, I’m not used to crying, but for the last three days I’ve been crying all day.” He added: “You know, for us Uyghurs, it didn’t just start with the lockdown. We’ve been suffering for years in Xinjiang.”

Gradually, the crowd became more daring. They demanded freedom of expression, and freedom of the press. They yelled: “We don’t forget 6/4,” which was a reference to the last time students challenged the government and demanded democracy, on Tiananmen Square, on June 4, 1989. The party crushed Tiananmen with tanks and machine guns.

And wouldn’t hesitate to do so again — these are very brave people.