‘A single spark can start a fire’: 5C students with ties to China take risks to put up political posters

A variety of posters in front of the entrance of Frary dining hall.
Chinese students at the 5Cs have joined an international protest movement against China’s zero-Covid policy and beyond through continuously — and anonymously — posting flyers around campus. (Anna Shobe • The Student Life)

Around the Claremont Colleges, anonymous posters denouncing Chinese policies and politicians have gone up and down since mid-October, as some students on campus find themselves disillusioned with the trajectory of the Chinese government. 

Taking personal risk to put up the posters, several 5C students joined Chinese students from over 350 schools worldwide. Originally inspired by an Oct. 13 protest in Beijing, the posters have gone up in greater frequency following recent nationwide protests in China which have been predominantly influenced by opposition to the country’s recently phased out zero-COVID policy

Aimed at instantly eliminating positive cases the moment they arise, the policy had placed large areas and cities into lockdown sometimes for months on end until no new cases emerged.

The anti-Xi Jinping and anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Mandarin and English posters often disappear and reappear in the span of a few days. Featuring information about ongoing human rights issues in China, they lack any indication of who is responsible for them, a requirement for posters pasted around the 7Cs. 

Students held a vigil in front of Claremont McKenna College’s Bauer Center two days after a Nov. 24 apartment fire in Xinjiang prompted more protests, an incident that became the last straw for many in China after strict COVID-19 restrictions closed fire exits that otherwise may have prevented the same loss of life.

TSL talked to five students who are Chinese nationals or Chinese Americans with family in China to learn more about what prompted the posters. Students requested anonymity, which they were granted, out of fear that other students would report them, the Chinese government would punish them or that their families could face consequences. 

Some students at the 5Cs said putting up posters symbolizes resistance to the policy and larger opposition to ongoing human rights abuses in China. 

“Change is not necessarily coming from the outside, it’s coming from within,” one Chinese student told TSL in reference to the poster movement. “That’s what’s monumental [about all the protests].”

For another student, though, being heard is not necessarily the only desired outcome.

“We know the system won’t change, but it’s a way of expressing ourselves. It’s a way of expressing our feelings,” the student, who was too afraid to put posters up themself, told TSL. 

Harvey Mudd College removed at least one poster because it had been placed without approval which violates the college’s poster policy, Director of Public Relations Judy Augsburger told TSL via email. Spokespeople from the other 5Cs had not heard of the posters. 

Another student from mainland China told TSL that a student tore down at least one poster because they think calling for governmental reform is inappropriate, though they did not support China’s zero-COVID policy.

The student said that although they disapprove of the harshness of the policy, they worried about the consequences of its removal, due to the low rate of vaccination in China and the ineffectiveness of some Chinese vaccines.

“You only know that right now, [this] is the situation where you control COVID. But you don’t have a counterfactual,” they said.

To professor Hanzhang Liu, who teaches Chinese politics at Pitzer College, the nature of China’s zero-COVID policy is oppressive. Citing the Chinese government’s capacity to track phone location data to determine whether a person can enter public buildings or should be in isolation, Liu said some parts of the policy have gone too far. 

“We see some signs that point to there being a very high possibility that this [tracing strategy] is now being used for social control and might be here to stay,” Liu said.  

Both Chinese and Chinese American students spoke about the toll that the lockdown measures have had on the mental health of people living under the policy in China.

“This extreme policy has made lives unliveable for Chinese people,” one student from China said. “… It is a giant fucking play for one person!”

Some Chinese nationals at the 5Cs do not want to be associated with the political opinions expressed by the posters, even if they oppose the zero-COVID policy, while others believe the two are intimately intertwined. 

Meanwhile, another student blamed the “highly centralized autocratic” nature of the Chinese government for many problems facing the country, including the zero-COVID strategy.

“It is the gap between theory and reality where people die,” the student said. “Implementing things from a top-down perspective does not consider the reality of the people at the bottom. People who are actually within the system of governance implementing these things in the executive branch do not consider that.”

To another Chinese national, although they thought the CCP has improved the quality of life for many people in China, the price is unacceptable when it comes to the party’s stance on human rights. 

“If I sit in a class and learn about what ethnic cleansing is, but look the other way when it takes place in my home country, what kind of fucking cognitive dissonance is that?” they told TSL, referencing the persecution of ethnic minority groups like the Uyghurs in northwestern China. “… I know what a just form of government is, and I yearn for that.”

Professor Minxin Pei, who teaches Chinese politics at CMC, told TSL that students’ fears for their safety, and that of their families, are legitimate. 

“The Chinese government has many ways of punishing people who speak their minds,” Pei said.

Pei said that in his class, students from mainland China are more outspoken about their political beliefs than perhaps when talking to their peers.  

Group chats for Chinese students at the 5Cs contain little to no mention of any of the protests, according to several Chinese students, for fear that others would report them for dissident political beliefs or that their families would face consequences.  

“Once you talk about it publicly and leave traces of it, people could use it against you,” one student told TSL. “There are a lot of students here at the 5Cs whose parents are government officials, so they don’t participate in these [protests`].”

Liu underscored the bravery of the students participating in the poster protest.  

“Even when these students are thousands of miles away from China, they are still worried… Just this mild thing, in the grand scheme of things — they’re just putting up fliers — but even that could have a lot of potentially ruinous consequences on their lives,” she said. “So imagine if that is already the thing people are dealing with when they’re not inside China, think about the kind of dangers and threats people are faced with inside.” 

There is extensive surveillance in China, and the country monitors and censors citizens’ online activity on Chinese-owned social media apps even when they are abroad. One student from mainland China told TSL their account on the messaging app WeChat was temporarily banned after they tried to send someone a meme of a Chinese politician.

A different student said they were frustrated with China’s censorship because the history of its people will only be known as told by foreigners — referring to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as an example. 

“It is incredibly sad that much of our history has been documented by outsiders from different countries,” they said. “They will have painted over it with a foreign perspective.”

All students interviewed spoke about the nuance in supporting the poster movement, expressing frustration with people who equate criticism of the CCP with criticism of Chinese people.

“American media is sometimes unjustifiably cruel in its portrayal of Chinese people, and anti-Chinese sentiment can come from a Sinophobic place,’” a second-generation Chinese-American student said. 

Liu said she constantly grapples with this delicate balance as someone who is a strong critic of Xi’s government. One way she said she addresses this sensitivity in her class is by exposing students to opposing viewpoints.

“Sometimes in Western reporting, [Chinese policies] can come across as completely without reason,” she said. “Even in its initial conception, it is like, ‘Oh, the CCP had a very stupid policy, and everyone just decided to go along with it.’”

One Chinese national explained the importance of being able to criticize one’s home country. 

“As humans, we are way more comfortable turning our gaze outwards than inwards,” they said. “But if we have this process of reckoning, where we can learn how to love our home while also seeing it as a place that can harbor evil, then it becomes much easier to turn our gaze inwards. Otherwise, it is much easier to point to a foreign object outside of ourselves and say only that thing is capable of evil.”

The first-generation student noted the frustration that some Chinese people have if Americans call for reform in China. To some people, it seems hypocritical. 

“In Chinese media, sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, the U.S.? They’re racist,’” they said.

While another student agreed there can be hypocrisy, they said there is merit in looking at Western institutions from an anti-colonial lens. 

“The process of democratization is not a model of Westernization … A Chinese democracy should not model itself after the West,” they said. “It is not a Western proximity game.”  

One of the Chinese nationals had a final message for the 5Cs. 

“We don’t want this [protest] to exist in secrecy,” they said. “We want this to be on people’s minds.”

In talking with TSL about what comes after the protests, Liu referred to a well-known Chinese analogy: a single spark can start a prairie fire. 

“Maybe the hope is that if there are enough sparks all around, at some point it’ll catch fire,” she said.  

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