On Halloween, 22-year-old Wester Yang took to Toronto’s streets dressed in a Chinese emperor costume topped off with a mask of Xi Jinping’s face.
He was joined by a friend going as one of the scarier characters in China today: the faceless pandemic-control workers – dubbed “dabai” or “big whites” for their full-body white hazmat suits.
The duo are among a growing number of mostly Chinese students in B.C., Ontario and other parts of Canada using creative and often covert ways to express their increasing dissatisfaction toward China’s unrelenting zero-COVID-19 policy and the Communist Party’s rule under its paramount leader Mr. Xi.
A series of online and offline protests were recently ignited around the world after an eye-catching anti-Xi demonstration in Beijing. On Oct. 13, a lone protester unfurled banners over the Sitong Bridge in China’s capital, calling for an end to COVID-19 restrictions and for Mr. Xi’s ouster. He was quickly arrested and government censors immediately began blacking out related keywords online, even including, for a time, “Beijing.”
But that didn’t stop the message from spreading. Soon after, Chinese students at universities around the globe started to post the demands of the “Bridge Man” and make their own flyers denouncing Mr. Xi and the country’s lack of democratic freedoms. Citizens Daily CN, northern_square and several other Instagram accounts have been sharing these posters submitted by students.
The administrators of Citizens Daily CN told The Globe and Mail last week, via direct messages, that they’ve received submissions from 358 universities so far, which includes the University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill, Simon Fraser University and a few others across Canada.
The Globe is not identifying the people behind the account because many have family in China and are concerned about reprisals from the government there. In a text interview, they said there were a “handful of people” administering the account.
The account’s administrators say they have also helped set up Telegram channels for people in London, New York, Toronto, southern California and Australia to safely discuss the protests. The Toronto chat group currently has more than 500 members, including Mr. Yang, who posts to the group.
It was not Mr. Yang’s first time criticizing the regime. Two years ago, the university student helped form a group in Toronto called Assembly of Citizens to launch a protest that memorialized whistleblower Li Wenliang, the Wuhan ophthalmologist who provided an early warning about the potent contagiousness of the coronavirus before it took his life.
Using his organizing experience, Mr. Yang began helping U of T students plan a campus demonstration on Oct. 21, assisting them to overcome their fears as well as counselling them on how to react if young Chinese nationalists show up.
Before the protest started, some of them “were indeed affected by fears, but the event received a good outcome,” Mr. Yang said in a recent interview. “I told them ’As long as you get used to it, you will realize it’s not that scary.’ ”
The Globe interviewed five other protesters in Canada, the majority of whom are in their early twenties. The Globe is not identifying them because they are concerned about the safety of their families in China.
The protesters said they were nervous and afraid when they put up posters on campuses or outside Chinese consulates and were extremely vigilant to ensure no other Chinese students were around, lest they get confronted or reported.
One student at the University of Manitoba said that while she was planning to post flyers, she saw a student from the school’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association ask in a local WeChat group for help tracking down a girl who spoke against China.
“It was really terrifying,” she told The Globe.
But she said her fear vanished and she felt empowered when she found other anti-Xi posters on the campus.
Some of the protesters who spoke to The Globe said they hung posters late in the evening or even asked their non-Chinese friends to put up the missives themselves. One woman asked a non-Chinese classmate to accompany her because, she said, his presence would deter any nearby nationalists from confronting her. None of them experienced attacks, but they said some of the posters were taken down within hours.
A 23-year-old Carleton University student said her hands were shaking when she was putting up posters one night around midnight. But she said she smiled as she travelled home, feeling for the first time a sense of power from rebelling against the regime and rejecting Mr. Xi as her president.
All the interviewees said they have been disillusioned with the Chinese government for years because of its highly restrictive approach to freedom of expression, the expanding surveillance on its citizens and the worsening of human rights under Mr. Xi.
They said they are pessimistic that change is coming to China, but that won’t stop them from trying. Some of those interviewed by The Globe said they planned to join other political groups and said their movement is exposing issues Beijing tries to hide, highlighting voices that are otherwise buried or filtered. As well, the dissidents are finding ways to connect with one another.
“We are not alone,” Mr. Yang said. “If you take down one, there will be more of us. We are not afraid of you.”
Josephine Chiu-Duke, a UBC professor who specializes in Chinese intellectual history, said the protesting students are very brave: If they are identified in Canada, then their relatives back home could be invited for a “cup of tea” at their local Public Security Bureau. Officials there would grill them about their political beliefs and put pressure on them to stop their son or daughter from further agitating abroad, she said.
The professor said local Chinese consulates may broadcast messages warning students to stay away from anti-Xi protests by using campus associations, which typically help international students find rentals and organize social events.
In September, 2019, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at McMaster University was stripped of its club status because of allegations that it was a tool of the Chinese government. Earlier that year, the association and several other student groups said they had informed the Chinese consulate in Toronto about a speech, held on campus, highlighting the plight of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the U of T, said the emergence of a student-led movement that is so blunt in its critique of the Chinese Communist Party is surprising.
“Chinese students studying overseas are often told by their parents to stay out of politics. Many Chinese students are wary of discussing Chinese politics in the classroom, let alone participate in a social movement that is so unflinching in its critique of the home regime,” she wrote in an e-mail.
An underlying cause of this sudden eruption of anger among Chinese Gen Z abroad, she noted, may be the pent-up frustrations they were unable to publicly express for a long time.
China’s zero-COVID-19 policy has not only complicated students’ plans to study and travel abroad, it has also resulted in family and friends losing jobs or businesses. Others are upset with their speech being controlled in WeChat or on Weibo and are experiencing censorship fatigue.
“These grievances, long silenced, are being aired,” she said.