Students lit candles for not only the victims of the Urumqi fire, but also for those who suffered from the police backlash in the Shanghai protests. Courtesy of Tom Zhang (24Ox)

Top Chinese government officials declared a “decisive victory” against COVID-19 on Feb. 17, stating that their zero-COVID policy was a “miracle in human history.” They also claimed to hold the world’s lowest fatality rates, despite countless accusations by international health experts questioning Beijing underreporting its data. The announcement comes after a group of students at Oxford College held a vigil on Nov. 30, 2022 for those who died in the Urumqi fire, a tragedy caused by the strict COVID lockdowns.

Out of 1067 total students at Oxford, 12% are international students and 31% identify as Asian or Asian American.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implemented the zero-COVID policy at the beginning of the pandemic in an attempt to eradicate the virus. Any domestic outbreak resulted in targeted testing, contact tracing and quarantines, an approach known as “​dynamic clearing.”

After the policy was lifted on Dec. 7, the CCP reported nearly 60,000 deaths on Jan. 14. Before the announcement, they had only reported 37 deaths since Dec. 7, 2022. Early on, Adjunct Professor of Political Science Yawei Liu said that the government stopped reporting the number of infections and deaths, showing a general lack of transparency about COVID-19.

The World Health Organization also criticized the Chinese government for its limited data transparency during the outbreak on Jan. 4. Later in the month, Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention Chief Epidemiologist Wu Zunyou reported that around 80% of Chinese people had already been infected.

Zero-COVID policy

Tom Zhang (24Ox) recalled an outbreak near his high school in Guangzhou, China that forced him and his classmates to take daily COVID-19 tests for almost five weeks. They stayed on campus until 11 p.m., waiting for negative results.

However, Zhang said he didn’t suffer as much as some of his friends. Aimee Zhao (24Ox) and Qishan Wang (24Ox), endured an extremely long quarantine where they were locked down in their homes in Shanghai and Wuhan, respectively.

“I was quite lucky in the city of Guangzhou,” Zhang said. “I didn’t suffer from any starvation or encounter very radical policies.”

During lockdowns, numerous reports described people struggling to access basic healthcare. A woman in Chongqing had a miscarriage after she was barred from leaving her locked-down complex on Nov. 12, 2022, and a four-month-old baby died after paramedics refused to treat her in Zhengzhou on Nov. 14, 2022.

Liu called China’s zero-COVID policy “ridiculous.”

According to Liu, the government would lock down any building that had COVID-19 positive residents. On Sept. 18, 2022, authorities in Guiyang, China sent 47 people to quarantine due to overwhelmed facilities in the city, but the bus that was carrying them to the site crashed, killing at least 27 passengers.

However, Liu said that the most significant tragedy was the fire on Nov. 24, 2022 that trapped and killed 10 and injured nine people in Urumqi, the capital of the western Xinjiang region of China.

Triggered by the Urumqi fire, protests erupted in multiple cities across China, including Shanghai. Coined the “A4 Revolution,” protestors held up blank sheets of standard printer paper to resist being silenced and taunt authorities, as they could not be arrested for holding signs without writing.

Zhao published an Op-Ed in the Wheel stating that the A4 Revolution, which has spread to Chinese students overseas, satirizes the CCP’s ban on any speech that opposes their authoritarian rule.

Reflecting on his experience with the zero-COVID policy, Oscar Li (24Ox) said he holds a relatively-neutral stance regarding the policy. Though he believes that Chinese people deserve access to more media coverage about COVID-19 and related protests, he said he understands the government’s intention.

“They want to maintain their power, so they’re not like, ‘Oh, this country is over, we’re going to kill everyone inside,’” Li said. “That’s not what they’re thinking. They’re thinking of an efficient way and effective way to control the economy and to control the people inside of it.”

Because people will inevitably be hurt, the government always has a difficult choice to make in the face of natural disasters, Li said. Thus, he does not oppose the zero-COVID policy itself, but hopes that the government could be “more considerate” when carrying out this mandate.

Li added that the Chinese government may also be “overconfident” in their decision-making when considering the country as an entire whole, without respecting the differences across ethnicities, regions and people.

“I definitely encourage the government to value that diversity more, and to conduct more precise policies towards these issues,” Li said. “But overall, there are a lot of tragedies happening, and I just feel compassionate towards them.”

While many countries relaxed COVID-19 restrictions in early 2022, China’s COVID-19 numbers reached record highs during November 2022. However, the CCP defended the zero-COVID policy as “life-saving” and “necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system.”

The Chinese government eased its restrictions on Dec. 7, removing the use of PCR tests and dramatically reducing the number of quarantine days from 14 to five. Additionally, authorities were barred from restricting movement and blocking fire escapes and public exits, a decision Tthe New York Times described as “an implicit concession to public discontent.”

“There are many factors leading up to this decision,” Liu said. “One is Omicron variant. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re not going to stop the spread of the virus.”

Students organized a vigil on the Oxford campus to mourn those who died in the Urumqi fire. Courtesy of Tom Zhang (24Ox)

Mourning at Oxford

Zhang, Zhao and a couple other unnamed students organized a vigil on the Oxford campus on the night of Nov. 30, 2022 to mourn those who died in the Urumqi fire.

The students later organized a small memorial table from Dec. 3 to 4. The memorial was originally placed outside of Seney Hall but was later moved to the Oxford Student Center with the help of Michaela Foronda, associate director of student involvement and leadership at Oxford.

Though Foronda was not involved with the vigil or memorial table, she said she helped Zhang secure the temporary space in the student center so their materials would not be damaged by the weather.

Students lit candles for not only the victims of the Urumqi fire, but also for those who suffered from the police backlash in the Shanghai protests and for those who starved to death from the brutality of the Chinese administration, Zhang said.

That night, five students — Zhang, Zhao and three unnamed students — gave brief speeches and handed out the standard printing papers used in the A4 Revolution for students to stick to their doors to show solidarity with those who protested against the Chinese government.

The unnamed students hid their faces by wearing masks because many of them are Chinese citizens who are uncertain of the consequences of openly expressing their opposition against the government, according to Li. This is a fear Li understands well.

“My parents told me to not [get] involved that much into politics, especially overseas,” Li said.

According to Zhang, one student stressed that the gathering was not a protest — the purpose was to mourn the dead. The student added that the zero-COVID policy was irrational, but he discouraged students from thinking that their purpose was to overthrow the government.

During Zhang’s speech, he spoke about the concept of a social contract — an agreement among members of society to cooperate for social benefits — and how the Chinese government is failing in its contract with the people.

“We do have the right to make the government respect the agreement we have and pay us back in the same amount that we have paid them,” Zhang said.

+ posts

Ashley Zhu (she/her) (25C) is from Dallas, Texas, majoring in biology and minoring in sociology. She is the vice president of recruitment for the Residence Hall Association, a sophomore advisor for Raoul Hall and a staff writer for the Emory Undergraduate Medical Review. She is involved in cell biology research at the Pallas Lab and is a BIOL 141 Learning Assistant. Zhu enjoys FaceTiming her dog, stalking people's Spotify playlists and listening to classical music in her free time.