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Raising blank sheets of white paper, about a dozen people gathered in Harvard Square's Pit by the T station entrance Tuesday afternoon in solidarity with Chinese demonstrators protesting censorship and the country’s Covid-19 restrictions.
The demonstration follows a wave of protests across China against the country’s “Zero-Covid” policy after an apartment fire killed 10 people on Nov. 24. The fire occurred in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, where strict Covid-19 lockdowns have confined residents to their homes for several months.
Tuesday’s demonstrators raised blank white sheets of paper to protest China’s crackdown on free speech and honor the country’s blank paper protests.
Artist Yolanda He Yang, who organized the demonstration alongside the Harvard Square Business Association, performed in the Pit, alongside Boston University undergraduates Rachel Kanter and Rowan J. Benz and MIT graduate student and violinist Brabeeba M. Wang ’18.
During the performance, Yang, Kanter, and Benz held paper-sized rectangles of clear glass over their heads. Using a white paint marker, they wrote “You know what I want to say” in both English and Mandarin repeatedly until the glass was covered in white — mimicking a blank sheet of paper.
Yang said the art demonstration had a clear purpose: “to bring awareness of the basic human rights to speak freely — to have free speech.”
Yang, who is from mainland China, has been unable to return home in recent years due to the pandemic. As protests have erupted in China in recent weeks, she said she has grown increasingly concerned for her family and felt a sense of solidarity with the protesters.
“It was very frustrating to see and to read articles about people forced to stay at home, being very hopeless,” Yang said.
“The inspiration actually was coming from [a] very emotional, very personal impulse of ‘I want to support and I wish I could be there with all the Chinese individual[s], because I’m Chinese too,’” she added. “I’m so far, I am here, and I always feel guilty to be here because it seems like we’re safe right now.”
Yang said she hopes to instill a sense of solidarity in others, too, through the public art demonstration.
“What I am trying to do as an artist is to nurture the sensitivity within people’s body, heart, mind,” she said. “So you wouldn’t feel ‘Oh, that’s not my business,’ and walk away.”
Still, Yang expressed concerns about the potential repercussions of the event.
“I was very concerned before the performance and I am still concerned after [the] performance, because the censorship is not a joke,” she said.
“I actually had a very serious talk with my friend,” she added. “They said, ‘Yolanda, I think you should wear sunglasses, and I think you should wear [a] mask.’”
Yang opted not to conceal herself during the demonstration.
Wang composed a piece on his violin to accompany the art performance. He said he chose a minimalistic approach to mirror the artists’ hand movements. The piece contained only two notes in different patterns and styles.
“The idea of having two notes is with two notes only, you theoretically could represent any kind of language — just like one and zero,” he said. “Other kinds of notes [are] censored out by the government but even under censorship, you still can have freedom to express yourself.”
Yang reached out to Wang after he performed with blank paper protesters in Harvard Yard on Nov. 29. The pair held their first blank paper art demonstration in Times Square on Saturday.
Benz and Kanter said they hope the Harvard Square demonstration will draw attention to the issue of censorship in China.
“I hope that for people that maybe are unfamiliar with it, this could be like a starting point to learning more about what’s happening,” Kanter said.
“I think that people in the U.S. take our freedom of speech for granted,” Benz added. “In the U.S., we have the privilege of being able to speak up to the government. But elsewhere, it is very, very dangerous to do so.”
—Sophia Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ScottSophia_.
—Claire Yuan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.
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