On Monday evening hundreds of people gathered at Sydney’s town hall to mourn the deaths from a fire in Urumqi in Xinjiang province in China, where 10 people died and nine others were injured.
The gathering was not just a memorial. It was a chance to show support for the protests that erupted in China in the days after the blaze.
As the Chinese national anthem goes: “Stand up, people who don’t want to live like slaves! We will build a new Great Wall with our blood and flesh.” The lyrics of the song are a stark reminder of the Chinese ancestors who sacrificed themselves to defend and rebuild the nation.
The world has seen the brave attempts at democracy in China from people on the streets. It’s the first time the younger generation has witnessed protests of such scale, and the first time many of them have expressed their frustration at authorities.
Protesting in an authoritarian country comes with huge personal risks. It is inspiring and encouraging to see young people in China pushing back against censorship and autocracy.
What happens next will depend not only on the actions of people in China but those around the world.
The protests on the streets of China have garnered significant support from Chinese communities abroad, including in Australia.
An investigation into the fire by Chinese authorities has only triggered more anger. It blamed narrow roads and the ageing facility for the disaster. But videos taken from people at the scene suggest pandemic control measures may have prevented firefighters from reaching the blaze.
This has led to protests breaking out across 15 major cities, not just demanding a relaxation of zero-Covid policies but making extraordinary calls for democracy and freedom via deeply symbolic messaging.
The Chinese party-state has long opposed public gatherings and the term “protest” is one of the biggest taboos in the eyes of authorities.
The people protesting over the weekend grew up in a cultural environment where they were constantly aware of the risks of acting against the state. They have also witnessed countless failed attempts at protests over the past several decades.
This is what makes these protests so extraordinary. It is also significant that students from some of the top universities in China, including Tsinghua University in Beijing, were involved.
A female student from the university delivered a powerful speech that was widely shared. “If we didn’t speak up due to the fear of being smeared (by the government), I think our people will be disappointed at me. And I, as a student of the Tsinghua University, will feel the regret and shame for the rest of my life,” she said with trembling voice.
She is not the only one who is deciding it’s time to speak out. At the beginning of a video of the protests at Tsinghua, we can hear voices in the crowd encourage her by saying “add oil” (an expression of support in Mandarin) and “don’t be afraid”.
Everyone who grew up in China knows that students from Tsinghua University are seen as role models for every Chinese person. Obtaining qualifications from this university brings huge career prospects.
This is why student movements from such prestigious universities could have a significant impact on protests in China as well as those among the Chinese community in Australia and around the world.
It is time to lose the stereotype of the brainwashed Chinese citizen and see these young protesters for who they are: people with agency and courage.
Xuyang Dong is a climate change analyst, based in Sydney. She was previously a researcher on China, multiculturalism, gender and development at the Lowy Institute