Chinese Abroad: Worried, Wary and Protesting

Huanjie Li, 26, has never been more worried about her family. And she has never been more worried about sharing that fear with them.

Ms. Li, who grew up in northeastern China and moved to Queens more than six years ago, has not spoken to her relatives overseas since widespread demonstrations began there.

“I don’t want them to get accidentally flagged as foreigners trying to talk about Chinese national safety,” Ms. Li said.

As the largest protests since the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprisings ripple across China, Chinese people in New York and the broader diaspora are watching, waiting.

Worry is paramount. They fear that with the return of lockdowns, their families will again not have enough food. They wait for friends to resurface online after attending demonstrations. They try to communicate and to evade censors’ algorithms on Chinese social media.

But they cannot share their worries openly with the people they love back in China, or even talk about the protests. Even though the country’s internet censors are struggling to contain the swell of online discontent, they say, it is too risky.

“We just say: ‘Be careful’ or ‘Do you have enough food?’” said Ms. Li “We just repeat that over and over again. I don’t know if they understand what I’m trying to say.”

Protesters rallying across the street from the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in New York.Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

At the start of the pandemic, she tried to share information with her family about the lockdowns. They quickly disbanded a group chat. She thinks they were afraid. Now, they don’t communicate much anymore.

“It may cause safety concerns if the chat got leaked or examined by national security,” she said. “There is no one harassing us necessarily. But this fear is deep-rooted in our daily life.”

Understand the Protests in China

  • The Toll of ‘Zero Covid’: The protests come as President Xi Jinping’s harsh pandemic policies have hurt businesses and strangled growth. The Daily looks at what the demonstrations could mean for Mr. Xi.
  • A Roar of Discontent: The protests have awoken a tradition of dissent that had seemed spent after 10 years under Mr. Xi. The effects may far outlast the street clashes.
  • Tracking Protesters: The authorities in China are using the country’s all-seeing surveillance apparatus to track, intimidate and detain those who marched in the protests.
  • Outmatching the Censors: Days after the initial protests, videos of chants and confrontations were visible on the Chinese internet. Experts say the sheer volume of clips likely overwhelmed China’s army of censors.

The protests in China began after a deadly apartment building fire in the far western city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, a tragedy many connected to Covid lockdowns. Demonstrators are calling on the government to relax its relentless “zero Covid” policy. Some have taken a bolder step, challenging the increasingly authoritarian government more directly and calling on Xi Jinping, the top leader, to step down.

Across New York City in recent days, residents with connections to China said the censorship there compounds the unique complexities of speaking across generations. Some said their parents had been at Tiananmen Square, but they did not know their politics now.

“We’re talking about a totalitarian regime,” said Vincent Gao, a Ph.D. student in Italian at Yale University who was born in China. “You don’t even really know what your parents are thinking on a specific issue. You don’t know if they’ve actually bought into the regime’s propaganda.”

An argument would not be worth it, he said — they live so far apart. And it would not be safe to have an open conversation, anyway. Instead, he asks uncomplicated questions: Are you doing fine? Is there food at home? How is your health?

“I’m not going to ask my parents: What do you think of the ‘zero Covid’? What do you think of the lockdown? What do you think of Xi Jinping?” Mr. Gao said. “You’re going to expose them to undue risk. What are they going to say?”

Protesters lit candles across the street from the Consulate General in New York. Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

Instead, supporters of the protesters in China attend demonstrations in solidarity. In New York City, a crowd of about 1,000 people gathered outside the Chinese Consulate one night last week. At times, the crowd called for Mr. Xi to step down.

“It’s a constant stream of rage,” said Mr. Gao, who attended the demonstration. “It’s despair about what’s going to happen to my country, to the people I love, to the country I love.”

Protesters have also gathered at other Chinese consulates and embassies around the world, from London to Toronto, Los Angeles to Hong Kong. Many held blank pieces of paper, like protesters in China, symbolizing censorship.

For Uyghurs in the diaspora, protest against China’s government is not new. Since 2017, China has detained hundreds of thousands of people in internment camps, targeting Muslim minorities. Uyghur activists outside China have spoken out against the detentions, which the United Nations said could amount to crimes against humanity. Recently, Uyghurs have sought to draw attention to the long confinement of people in Xinjiang Province: Much of the region had been under lockdown for more than 100 days before the fire in Urumqi.

Ankar Uyghur, 24, was born in Urumqi and lived there until he was 7. He fled to the United States in 2006 with his immediate family, but the rest of his family is still in Xinjiang.

His family has been threatened, he said. Strange men have called his mother on video chat from his grandparents’ home. He assumes he has family in the camps, he said, but communication is so difficult that he does not know for certain.

Ankar Uyghur, 24, a protester of Uyghur decent, said his family had been threatened. Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

But Mr. Uyghur said he’s also amazed by the reaction of Chinese people around him. The lockdowns, he said, have created unprecedented unity. For the first time, they’re mourning the deaths of people in Xinjiang alongside him.

“Even Chinese citizens are beginning to speak up,” he said. “That’s what’s so different this time. I’m not alone protesting. It’s not just me and my people — it’s all the people of China.”

Since the protests began, few in the diaspora have been sleeping deeply. Many described unsettled dreams. Some were specific: fears that the protests were a trap set by the Chinese Communist Party.

One architecture graduate student, who grew up in Guandong Province, has not been back to China for three years. (She asked to be identified by only her last name: Liu. She feared that her family members could face reprisals if a crackdown intensifies.)

“There were 10 days of mandatory quarantine, and I only got 20 days of break,” said Ms. Liu, 26, her eyes filling with tears. She used to go back once a year, in the winter. But she just could not take that much time off, she said.

Guilt is pervasive, too. Many Chinese people in the United States have received Western vaccines, which are more effective than China’s homegrown shots. They do not have to undergo painful, daily Covid tests or, worse, spend months indoors.

A protester in Manhattan late last month.Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

“It’s like survivor’s guilt,” said Tiger, an artist from Shanghai who asked that his last name not be published.

“People I know in Shanghai, they have to go through lockdowns,” said Tiger, 38. “I don’t. I feel like I’m running away from this. But am I? Am I not brave enough?”

When Shanghai went into lockdown in April, his parents were visiting him in New York. Instead of enduring crushing months of confinement with 25 million other Shanghai residents, they spent spring together, relieved to be able to move freely.

A few weeks ago, as cases rose and China began rolling out lockdowns again, he was nauseated with worry. His parents are back in Shanghai. They are in their sixties. They have hypertension. They need daily medicine.

Then, as he watched protests fill the neighborhood where he grew up, he was up awake worrying again. It’s thrilling, but who would take care of his parents if something happened?

“You don’t know what would happen tomorrow, especially after all the protests,” he said. “You can have a lockdown tomorrow. You can have something worse than a lockdown. We just don’t know.”

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