News

Residents Demand Answers at Council Meeting on Police Killing of Sayed Faisal

News

Bob Odenkirk Named Hasty Pudding Man of the Year

News

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Reverses Course, Will Name Ken Roth Fellow

News

Ex-Provost, Harvard Corporation Member Will Investigate Stanford President’s Scientific Misconduct Allegations

News

Harvard Medical School Drops Out of U.S. News Rankings

Editorials

Standing With Democracy and Chinese Protesters, At Home and Abroad

Demonstrators on campus covered their faces with white sheets of paper during a protest against the Chinese government's handling of Covid-19.
Demonstrators on campus covered their faces with white sheets of paper during a protest against the Chinese government's handling of Covid-19. By Joey Huang
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

Nearly three years and millions of deaths later, polities across the globe are still wrestling with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. But if most of the world appears eager to hastily move on from the “after times” so as to get to a new “before” era — to remove masks, enjoy global sporting events, and find a balance between epidemic preparedness and normalcy — one country has been insistent on doing the exact opposite.

Meet China’s controversial “zero covid” policy, a set of stringent city-wide lockdowns, forced quarantines, and mass testing meant to keep the country’s infections as low as possible against a mandate-less domestic backdrop defined by low vaccination and herd immunity rates. The government’s commitment to minimizing cases of a disease that’s arguably on track to become endemic, particularly in its sometimes draconian application of restrictions, has left behind a smattering of tragic stories: a bus on its way to compulsive quarantine that crashed, killing 27; residents urged to remain inside buildings during earthquakes; ethnic minorities in border regions, already antagonized by the regime, who faced alleged food shortages; residents of locked-down cities who reported orders to adhere to protocol and stay inside even as a massive earthquake unfolded.

“Zero covid” meant zero room for error — at any cost, including popular upset.

But no controversy or weeks-long lockdown sparked quite the same backlash, the same productive anger and revolt, as a deadly fire in an apartment complex in Urumqi this November. Those 10 deaths — coming on top of months’ worth of budding resentment against the harsh policies, made more bitter by footage presuming to show how “zero covid” measures hampered rescue efforts — proved 10 too many. The fire soon sparked protests, first in Urumqi and then, like a silent but swelling wave, across the country, even prompting (in a sharply unusual show of popular opposition) chants against the Chinese Communist Party itself.

Soon enough — like many other broadspread, laudable protest movements — the chants for change had reached our little corner of Cambridge too.

Hundreds, many of them Harvard affiliates, congregated in Harvard Yard to show solidarity with the protest efforts in China. They chanted “Free China,” “No more lockdowns,” and “Hey hey, ho ho! ‘Zero Covid’ must go!”, sang “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from “Les Misérables,” and covered their faces with sheets of white paper to show support for protestors in China.

The protesters expressed brave, ardent support for their counterparts within China. As a board, we can’t help but follow their footsteps: We stand with those willing to speak up against Xi and against autocracies (as well as with their right to define and lead their own struggle), and mourn the senseless loss of life and erosion of basic liberties in Urumqi and across the country. From strict, isolating lockdowns with no end date in sight to outright government censorship of the policies’ effects, it is more than clear that Zero Covid has been repressive in effect.

We extend our support and solidarity to Chinese international students and, more broadly, to all those hailing from countries with poor track records for human rights and civil liberties who feel trapped between expressing opposition from abroad and harming those left behind. University students in particular are, and historically have been, at the heart of dissent in China. The white paper sheet protest tactic began with them; these protests began with them.

The world, their compatriots, and any defender of democracy’s core freedoms owe them admiration and gratitude. Harvard, as a powerful lobbying and educational institution, owes them (particularly its current, impacted affiliates) boundless generosity in assisting with any and all upcoming challenges, from financing their education to limiting immigration hurdles. Let autocrats know that any and all brilliant minds willing to defy a descent into dystopia will get nothing short of unconditional support from the elite institutions they so seem to admire.

Our endorsement of these core liberties, and of those who fight tirelessly and at great personal cost for them, can not be limited by a particular geographic scope; our opinions must demand consistent standards from Boston to Beijing. We support the right of Chinese people, and all people, to advocate for basic human rights, including the freedom to voice dissent unapologetically and publicly. We believe, furthermore, that out of all forms of governance democracy best lends itself towards the pursuit, maintenance, and defense of these rights.

Those lucky enough to live within systems that tolerate opposition, those hailing (or, in our case, opining) from the relative security of democratic countries, should, first, seek to perfect their own abundant domestic shortcomings. No nation is free from ongoing sin — but only democratic ones offer a path, through unbridled critique and debate, through progress and setbacks, to beginning to heal them.

Non-Chinese spectators should also closely follow and support allied international struggles. In that vein, we endorse the multiple other movements seeking greater liberties across China, including the struggles of lonesome, democratic Taiwan, the fight against annihilation and repression of the Uyghur people, the resolute defiance of the untamable Hong Kong, and those sounding Tibet’s decades-long cry for help. While we lack the space or time to fully and nuancedly unpack their collective history and merits with the care they deserve, we are convinced of the sincere desire for autonomy and freedom behind their claims.

The outburst after Urumqi has already triggered an overhaul of China’s covid policy, a rare concession to popular will. It might not be the last. We would like to believe that Urumqi and its backlash, along with a host of other indicators from Tehran to Kiev, represent a seemingly broad tide towards democracy, a hint that Francis Fukuyama might just have been right. Faint but inspiring proof that, in the scholar’s own words, “no authoritarian government presents a society that is, in the long term, more attractive than liberal democracy, and could therefore be considered the goal or end point of historical progress.”

A future that begins not with a boot forever stamping on a human face — but with a protest, a vote, or a whisper that asks, in brave, unflinching terms, whether you hear the people sing.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.


Have a suggestion, question, or concern for The Crimson Editorial Board? Click here.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
Editorials