A Ray of Light, A Glimmer of Hope — Li Yuan talks to Jeremy Goldkorn & to a Shanghai protester

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Appendix XXVI


In May 2022, Li Yuan 袁莉, a noted New York Times columnist who focuses on the intersection of technology, business and politics in China and across Asia, started a weekly Chinese-language podcast titled Who Gets It — Searching for the Truth and Answers Together 不明白播客:一起探尋真理與答案. In her conversations with a diverse range of people both in- and outside of China, she brings her unique perspective to contemporary affairs. Transcripts of Li Yuan’s interviews are also published on the Who Gets It website.

In early December 2022, Yuan discussed the background to Who Gets It with Jeremy Goldkorn of The China Project:

I started in May because I felt really depressed during the Shanghai lockdown, even though I live in Seoul. I think many people felt depressed, many Chinese, many of my friends because you saw people suffer; people who are just like you. My friends, I talk to them. I wrote columns about what it was like in Shanghai, and I felt angry, I felt depressed, and I felt like I needed to do something. In addition to writing my column in English, I needed to do something for the Chinese people, the Chinese public. And also, you know this very well, there’s almost no decent Chinese publications left. They’ve killed most of them. Even many publications that are still around are no longer their former selves.

I felt that, especially for the younger people, they should know what a normal news outlet should be like, how you should talk about a news event without censorship. You can ask questions straight. And there will be all kinds of opinions about one thing. That’s what I wanted to do. And I did not expect it to become very popular. I did not expect I would get so much feedback from the audience. Many people listened to us inside China, and we got blocked, our website got blocked after the second episode, and then they just raised the Great Firewall higher and higher and higher, but we still get a lot of listeners.

I’m really grateful. It’s quite an experience. Speaking in Chinese is liberating. And also, a lot of times I can ask a lot more questions, I can cover a lot more questions because it runs pretty long, sometimes too long. I can cover a lot more questions than my columns. Also, our audience is Chinese, and I don’t need to explain too much background.

from Jeremy Goldkorn, After the protests, a glimmer of hope — Q&A with Li Yuan, The China Project, 9 December 2022


In Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, an ongoing China Heritage series, we have previously published material translated from Li Yuan’s Who Gets It podcast related to Peng Zaizhou (‘The Bridge Man’ of Beijing) and the ‘It’s My Duty Democracy Wall’ in London (see Awakenings — a Voice from Young China on the Duty to Rebel, 14 November 2022), as well as the Twentieth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (see Exit Stage Right — Hu Jintao’s staggering departure from China’s political scene, 23 October 2022).

We are grateful to Li Yuan for permission to translate material from her conversation with a Shanghai protester and to Jeremy Goldkorn who has allowed us to quote material from his interview with Li Yuan.

This appendix to Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium should be read in conjunction with the following:

See also:

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, Asia Society
10 December 2022

‘Youth’, by Cao Tian (曹天, 1968-)


A Glimmer of Hope

from a Q&A with Li Yuan

Jeremy Goldkorn


Q: Most of the time I was in China — I moved there in 1995 — there was this sense that the government was pulling out of people’s private lives. It wasn’t telling you where to live. It wasn’t assigning you a work unit after college or deciding who you could marry. But COVID put the government back into people’s lives in a way that young people had never really experienced.

A: Yeah. That’s exactly what people have been telling me. I’m still interviewing people because it’s amazing. We all know how difficult it has become to interview Chinese people since COVID, right? Well, since 2019, and especially since COVID. But there are so many people who want to talk to me. They want to share their thoughts, their stories. I just heard from a protester who told me, “Oh, I might find the one just during the protest.” They want to share every detail with me.

But they all said the same thing; they said, “I did not pay attention to politics before the pandemic. I didn’t really care because I knew the government wouldn’t care about my opinions.” But right after the Shanghai lockdown, I talked to a software programmer. He wrote an ebook after the Shanghai lockdown. He said he went abroad, he studied abroad, and he moved back to China, and he was earning a decent salary. Typical middle-class Chinese, and never cared about politics, never talked about politics with his friends. And then the Shanghai lockdown, he felt that he lost complete control of his life, and he was so depressed. He did not know — how could this happen? He started asking questions. That happened to many, many people. Many people realize the government has too much control there; too much control over their lives and now they’re asking questions — why and how much control they should give to the government.

Q: Being imprisoned in your own apartment, that’ll do it for you, I guess.

What about signs of solidarity with Uyghurs? I found one of the interesting slogans that we heard in Shanghai was “We’re all Xinjiang people.” That seems quite unusual in a country where, generally speaking, there hasn’t been a lot of sympathy on the part of most Han Chinese for Muslim minorities and Uyghurs.

A: I actually heard a lot from protesters how they changed their opinions about the Xinjiang policy, about the Hong Kong young people.

Remember they used to call the Hong Kong protesters fèi qīng 廢青, wasted youth. And they did not believe there were concentration camps in Xinjiang, and they thought the New York Times and other foreign media just made up those stories. But I heard from protesters, again and again, that now they really admire Hong Kong protesters. They’re reaching out. They’re actually watching documentaries of Hong Kong protesters and trying to learn how they protested, how they protected their identity.

[Note: On the ‘wasted youth’ fèi qīng 廢青of Hong Kong and 2019-2020 protests, see Hong Kong Apostasy, in particular, A Summer of Blood and Tears — according to six Hong Kong high-school students, China Heritage, 9 September 2019.]

And then they also realize that they should be more sympathetic to the Uyghurs. One protester told me that if they could do what they did to Uyghurs and they could do to us. She realized that they…I wrote a column [in March] about how Shanghai was being Xinjianged, right? At that time, some people were like, “Oh, you are exaggerating.” Now people are thinking that they should have two phones — one they can use at home with all the foreign apps and VPNs, and maybe they should carry another one when they go out, which is exactly what happened to many people in Xinjiang, right? It’s just so scary.

Some of my Chinese friends said when the iron face of the government falls to you, then you’ll realize what it’s like to be persecuted or to be the victim. I think it’s unfortunate that many people didn’t realize this until they suffered personally from some cruel policies. But I think it’s still encouraging. This young generation, I think many of them grew up in a very controlled internet environment. And also, the indoctrination at schools is unbelievable. …

Q: So does this make you hopeful?

A: To be honest, I don’t know how hopeful we should be. But still, so many of my friends cried, people of my age. I admit I cried quite a bit, just watching, I choked up quite a bit watching those videos because for many people, for many of my friends, we had been feeling that the darkness was complete, was overwhelming. We believed that the younger generation were mostly the little pinks, and that there was no hope for China to ever become a little bit free. They saw they would have to live in the darkness for another 20 years, 30 years, maybe. [All they could hope for] was to outlive Xi Jinping.

Now, even though we don’t know what’s going to happen, people see a little bit of hope, a little bit of light, even if it’s very distant.

from Jeremy Goldkorn, After the protests, a glimmer of hope, The China Project, 9 December 2022


We Are the Same Person

— a music video featuring the lyrics of ‘Bring Me to Life’ by Evanescence

Bring Me to Life

by Evanescence

How can you see into my eyes like open doors?
Leading you down into my core
Where I’ve become so numb
Without a soul
My spirit’s sleeping somewhere cold
Until you find it there and lead it back home

Wake me up inside (save me)
Call my name and save me from the dark (wake me up)
Bid my blood to run (I can’t wake up)
Before I come undone (save me)
Save me from the nothing I’ve become

Now that I know what I’m without
You can’t just leave me
Breathe into me and make me real
Bring (bring) me (me) to life

Wake me up inside (save me)
Call my name and save me from the dark (wake me up)
Bid my blood to run (I can’t wake up)
Before I come undone (save me)
Save me from the nothing I’ve become

Bring me to life
I’ve been living a lie
There’s nothing inside
Bring me to life

Frozen (frozen) inside without your touch
Without your love, darling
Only (only) you are the life among the dead

All of this time, I can’t believe I couldn’t see
Kept in the dark, but you were there in front of me
I’ve been sleeping a thousand years, it seems
Got to open my eyes to everything
Without a thought, without a voice, without a soul
Don’t let me die here
(There must be something more) bring me to life

Wake me up inside (save me)
Call my name and save me from the dark (wake me up)
Bid my blood to run (I can’t wake up)
Before I come undone (save me)
Save me from the nothing I’ve become

Bring me to life
I’ve been living a lie
There’s nothing inside
Bring me to life

— from Fallen, an album released by Evanescence in 2003


In and Out of Custody

From an Interview by Li Yuan with a Shanghai Protester




9 December 2022

Translated & annotated by Geremie R. Barmé

[For the full Chinese text of this conversation, see here.]

The New York Times reported that:

Protests spread to cities and college campuses around China on Saturday night [27 November 2022], reflecting rising public anger at the country’s draconian Covid controls, with some in a crowd in Shanghai directing their fury at the Communist Party and its top leader, Xi Jinping.

The wider demonstrations followed an outpouring of online anger and a street protest that erupted Friday in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang in western China, where at least 10 people died and nine others were injured in an apartment fire on Thursday. Many Chinese people say they suspect Covid restrictions prevented those victims from escaping their homes, a claim the government has rejected.

The tragedy has fanned broader calls to ease China’s harsh regimen of Covid tests, urban lockdowns and limits on movement nearly three years into the pandemic. For much of that time, many accepted such controls as a price for avoiding the widespread illness and deaths that the United States, India and other countries endured. But public patience has eroded this year as other nations, bolstered by vaccines, moved back to something like normal, even as infections continued. And after years of enforcing the strict “zero Covid” rules, many local officials appear worn down.

The widening discontent may test Mr. Xi’s efforts to hold those rules in place.

“The demonstrations across the country have been like the spark that lit a prairie fire,” James Yu, a resident of Shanghai, said in an interview, adopting a Chinese phrase used to describe the spread of Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution. “I feel like everyone can make their voice loud and clear. It feels powerful.”

from Chris Buckley and Muyi Xiao, Protests Erupt in Shanghai and Other Chinese Cities Over Covid Controls, The New York Times, 26 November 2022

Li Yuan was able to locate one of the young people involved in the Shanghai protests. Up to this point in the interview, the focus of the discussion has been on the detention, booking and overnight incarceration of the protester.

As Yuan reported:

‘One of the protesters who was detained said her blood had been drawn, her irises scanned and her phone taken away. She was ordered to take all her clothes off for a body cavity search. The experience left her fearful. Still, she shared her experience on my Chinese podcast, so others would know what to expect.’



Li Yuan: So about what time did you get home?

Protester: It must have been around 7:00 or 8:00 on the morning of the 28th.

Yuan: That would make it about twenty-four hours after you’d been taken to the police station, right?

Protester: That’s right. Add that to the time I’d spent on the bus after they nabbed me, altogether they held me for about twenty-seven hours.

Li Yuan: And that experience left you pretty much feeling traumatized.

Protester: That’s right.

Li Yuan: What did you do after you got home?

Protester: I slept the whole day. I couldn’t move. After we’d all been lined up, I ended up sleeping on the bare floor next to a young female student. It left me aching all over. It also felt as though I’d gone through some kind of emotional grinder. I’d had a panic attack, I mean I was in a state of high agitation all the time I was in the cells and it left me completely drained, like a computer after a system collapse. Then I had seen some of the people they brought in after us were even younger — just teenagers. One of them was a seventeen year old boy. I couldn’t be entirely certain that they were adolescents, but I felt they couldn’t possibly be held responsible for anything. Maybe they [the police] were parading them before us as a kind of intimidation.

Li Yuan: They wanted to scare you so that you’d never do anything like that again.

Protester: Yeah.

Li Yuan: What about your parents? Did they take it out on you when they saw the state you were in?

Protester: Mine are the kind of parents who just want you to ‘keep quiet and focus on making lots of money’. They don’t want to see me getting involved in this kind of thing. Of course, they also want me to be safe.

Li Yuan: As anyone’s parents would.

Protester: I’ve been telling them about what’s really happening in China for quite a while now and my dad even seemed to be getting it. Sometimes, he even argues with his work colleagues about things. As for my mother, she’s just really worried about me and really doesn’t want me getting mixed up in things. She’s always been scared that the police would be on my case, and I get it, I mean, when this finally happened I had to explain to them exactly why I had acted the way I did. All in all, it was exhausting.

受訪者:我睡了一整天。我實在是動都動不了了。因為在那邊後來排排坐之後,就是我跟一個女生就躺在地上睡了,然後整個人渾身酸痛。然後精神上我也受了不少折磨。我在裡面就是有一點panic attack,就是一直在驚恐發作,所以回來以後就真的很累,就是整個人宕機了那種感覺。對我來說就是,後來被抓進來的新人有幾個是未成年。我看到了十七歲的男孩子。就是我,我都不確定他們未成年,是不是沒有這個能力去承擔這個責任。他們(警察)可能就還是想威懾我們一下。

Li Yuan: Can you say a few words about your motivation?

Protester: Sure. For me, it’s summed up in that expression: ‘It’s our duty.’ It’s such a reasonable way of putting it. There are lots of people — like those who died in the Urumqi apartment fire — who’ve never had a chance to speak out. We do have an opportunity, so I feel that we are duty-bound to raise our voices.

[Note: For more on ‘It’s our duty’, see Awakenings — a Voice from Young China on the Duty to Rebel, 14 November 2022; and, It’s My Duty, 1 December 2022]

Li Yuan: Okay, so you feel it is your ‘duty’ to speak out on their behalf.

Protester: That’s right. We really are a ‘community of shared destiny’. I believe that you should speak out whenever you know one of our number is suffering.

[Note: The formulation ‘community of shared destiny’ 人類命運共同體 is a key element of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. See Shared Destiny: China Story Yearbook 2014. The term pre-dated Xi Jinping, appearing as the ‘community of common destiny’ in General Secretary Hu Jintao’s report to the Eighteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.]

Li Yuan: So, that’s specific to the coronavirus epidemic? That’s to say, you were joining other people who’d taken to the streets to protest against the restrictions and lockdowns. Or were there other specific or more complex reasons for your protest?

Protester: Yeah, well, sure, that was one reason … But, when people held up all of those blank sheets of paper it reflected the fact that people had a range of grievances. Despite that, somehow we all collectively knew that we were protesting one particular thing: you could call it ‘totalitarianism’ — the system that had imposed all of these extreme restrictions on us.

Some people just wanted to go to a movie, or to enjoy a basic sense of freedom, some … However, we were united in the desire to overthrow the same thing. That’s what, for me, was the most important message behind all the blank pages.

[Note: See How to Read a Blank Sheet of Paper, 30 November 2022.]

Yuan Li: So, ‘to overthrow the same thing’, what thing, exactly?

Protester: The state of totalitarian control; the limitless term in power [now enjoyed by Xi Jinping], the revisions to the Constitution [in 2018]. No single individual should be able to amass so much power. When they do, they feel that they can say whatever they want and get away with it. For example, recently, there’s that view [expressed unofficially] that the policy of ‘dynamic covid restrictions’ [a keynote policy of Xi Jinping] was actually a plot cooked up by hostile foreign forces [aimed at fostering chaos in China]. But, up until a few days before that, weren’t the authorities denouncing people for being too lax and ‘giving up’? [That, too, at the time was blamed on the machinations of foreign forces]. Honestly, it all really screws with your head.

Li Yuan: That’s right, it’s the kind of logic expressed in that line ‘war is peace and peace is war’ [from George Orwell’s novel 1984]. Everything can change at the drop of a hat.

[Note: For more on this subject, see Isaiah Berlin, et al, ‘Xi Jinping’s China & Stalin’s Artificial Dialectic’China Heritage, 10 June 2021.]

Protester: Exactly. So, I simply don’t think a person like that — one who can distort facts on a whim, or turn on a dime and reverse their previous position with impunity — should have such power.

Li Yuan: Yet they don’t think that the problem lies with them at all.

Protester: How can they not take responsibility for something they’ve pursued for so long and then pretend, all of a sudden, that we have to accept their new line without question?

受訪者:嗯,我覺得就真的像他們說的,It’s  our duty,是一個蠻理所當然的事情。可能有很多人像烏魯木齊被燒死的人呀,他們沒有發聲的機會了,就是我們有這個機會的話,肯定是要為這些人發聲。
袁莉:對,就是War is peace, peace is war.戰爭就是和平,和平就是戰爭。就是看你在什麼時候想說什麼了。

Li Yuan: It seems to be something about your particular generation [of people in their twenties] that, although you’ve never shown much of an interest in politics in such, you seem to share a certain kind of earnestness, isn’t that so? It seems to manifest itself in regard to something like expecting people to tell the truth. It would appear that this simply hasn’t occurred to the power-holders.

Protester: That’s right. Like for us — we’ve always had to watch what we say. I’ve had so many things deleted from my Weibo accounts; I’ve had eight accounts shut down, and that’s without having said anything all that radical. Maybe it happened because I covertly hinted at or alluded to things, or because I reposted some things by other people that ended up being censored. Then, you just never know when you might actually disappear yourself. You see so much stuff like that, unpredictable stuff, and it has become normalised. That’s how come that, despite the fact that I have a strong urge to express myself, I had to repress it for so long.

Li Yuan: Can you give me a few examples of the kinds of things that resulted in your Weibo accounts being closed down, like the Chained Woman [discovered in a village in Jiangsu in February 2022]?

Protester: I can’t really give you any examples. There’s been too many over too long a period.

Li Yuan: Okay, I understand. Yesterday, when I was talking to a female student at Nanjing Communications University [where the Blank Page Rebellion first erupted] she told me that just about everyone in her dorm had their Weibo accounts shut down or deleted at one time or another. When I asked her what were the reasons she also said she couldn’t remember any of the exact issues, just that for some inexplicable reason or other they had been cancelled.

Protester: That’s exactly it. It might happen when you are re-posting lots of things on a day when a lot is going on. When you suddenly get cancelled there’s no what of knowing exactly triggered the censors. All they tell you is that your account was in breach of the relevant laws and regulations. But exactly which laws, what regulations? They never respond.

Li Yuan: Yes, I get it. You seem as though you’ve thought about it. Can I ask you what your main point of disagreement or contention with the system is? What is it precisely?

Protester: In the end, I think it comes down to free speech. Yeah, in my case. you see, I’m one of those people who has a natural urge, a compulsion to express themselves. So, even though they have kept shutting me down, I was undaunted. I’d just go and get myself a new Weibo account so I could keep expressing myself. Over time, I came to realise that freedom of expression is a basic right. But they’re always on the lookout for any hint of anything untoward. It’s absurd the way they are constantly policing everyone. They want us to shut up. Even now, when people hold up blank pieces of paper they still want to make us keep our mouths shut. But, by using those blank pages everyone knows exactly what you really mean to say.

[Note: Intensified policing and censoring of speech 禁言 jìn yán has been a leitmotif of Xi Jinping’s ‘new era’. It reached new heights from the silencing of the whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang at the beginning of the covid epidemic in late 2019. See, for example, ‘The innocent cry to Heaven. The odour of such a state is felt on high.’, China Heritage, 1 October 2020.]

Li Yuan: So you’d actually rehearsed the script in your head many times over.

Protester: That’s right. The blank sheets were inspired by that old Soviet joke, one in which a policemen asks a guy why he’s holding up a blank sheet of paper and the fellow replies, everyone knows why.

[Note: The joke goes:

A man hands out leaflets on Red Square, and the KGB arrest him. But when they get him to the station, they find that the leaflets are all blank. And he says, ‘Well, everyone knows what the problem is, so why bother writing it down?’]

Li Yuan: I haven’t seen what you posted on Weibo but do you think of yourself as being a particularly political person? Do you tend to express your political views online? Or have you been more interested in commenting on current affairs and controversial issues like women’s rights, the Chained Woman and the Tangshan Incident?

Protester: I think I’ve been more interested in that kind of topical social issue, as well as the question of democracy, broadly defined. I find politics as such too much to deal with. It’s a subject that for people who have no vote, like me, is very frustrating.

Li Yuan: So, you’re telling me that your eight Weibo accounts weren’t cancelled because of what you were saying about politics per se?

Protester: That’s right. I’ve never really posted anything overtly political. If I did, it would be instantly deleted. In the Chinese context anything even vaguely radical is instantly censored. The things that people like me want to express are far more prosaic: like speaking up when we learn of someone being hurt or being badly done by. Or, we re-post material that we’ve seen online.

Li Yuan: I understand. I saw a video clip today in which people were chanting a simple slogan: ‘Give us back our normal lives!’ It really got to me.

Protester: Yup.

Li Yuan: Such a modest demand.

Protester: That’s the case for us. I know that overseas people sometimes go and demonstrate because they don’t want to do a certain kind of job. But here, people have taken to the streets demanding the right to go back to the jobs they already have.

Li Yuan: Yes, indeed.

Protester: People have been chanting: ‘Let us go back to work!’ It’s such a modest demand. Just let us make a living, but the authorities won’t even give in to people who [ironically] are agitating to get back to work so they can be exploited ‘996’ [that is, working 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, six days, or 72 hours, a week].


Li Yuan: That’s the slogan I heard today. It really made me tear up. Heavens, I thought to myself, it’s such a basic demand. So, let me ask you, the slogans that were being chanted that night at Urumqi Middle Road were pretty much on the radical side. They reached a crescendo with: ‘Down with the Communist Party! Xi Jinping Get Out!’ At the time, did these strike you as being extreme?

Protester: Actually, I didn’t, though I was pretty taken aback when everyone started chanting along. A lot of us might think things like that to ourselves, but who’d ever dare voice such thoughts? Once in a subtweet I added a note in which I said that I don’t like this country, then it was re-posted by someone and I was attacked  for being a member of the ‘Hate-China Party’

[Note: ‘Hate China Party’ 恨國黨 hèn guó dǎng, a broad term of abuse used to silence ‘people who hate their country’, as opposed to those who love China, 愛國黨 aì guó dǎng].

Li Yuan: Though that’s not true, right? It’s just that you don’t like the way the country is.

Protester: Right. I might hope that it will change, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I hate it. Like the protests this time, a lot of the young people sang the national anthem; we were using the most patriotic form of protest to express our demands. We didn’t even dare sing The Internationale since we knew we might be accused of promoting those ‘foreign forces’.

Li Yuan: Aren’t the Communists the ones who introduced The Internationale to China in the first place?

Protester: We sang ‘Stand up! Those who refuse to be slaves!’ [the opening lines] from the Chinese national anthem.

Li Yuan: That’s right. Then let me ask this: are you afraid? How have you felt since they let you go? What kind of emotional state have you been in?

Protester: Frankly, I’m still pretty much in state of shock. Remember I told you that I’d posted news that I’d been detained on Weibo the night I was detained? After sleeping for a day after getting out, the police turned up at our place and ordered me to delete that post. After that encounter, I realise that I’ve become a bit of a nervous wreck. I really don’t want to see anything more of the police.

Li Yuan: So, it’s the thought of a knock on the door that sets your nerves on edge?

Protester: A little. It was all quite a big deal for me.

Li Yuan: But you’re still posting things on Twitter and you’ve allowed me to interview you. Doesn’t all of that also make you scared?

Protester: Yeah, sure. But being scared can only go so far. If you’ve experienced something like I have, I reckon you need to take advantage of what the fear has earned you — a daring to speak up, to enjoy the moment. Otherwise, the experience will go to waste. What I’m saying is pretty much in keeping with the idea that Chinese people only do something when they think that it has some kind of actual value or meaning.

Li Yuan: To my mind, what you are saying is completely understandable.

Protester: Yes, indeed, I feel the same way. Since I’ve been through all of that, I might as well give it some real meaning.

Li Yuan: I’m really moved by the way you put it. I rarely express my own emotional responses to things. For the last few days, I’ve been looking for some young people who’d been detained and released by the police so I could speak to them. I wanted to hear about their experiences but, even then, I’ve felt conflicted. I still do, since as I produce this podcast I’m worrying to myself about whether it might get people into trouble — despite the fact that the interviews are anonymous and I’ve masked people’s voices. I have a pile of concerns. In your case, for example, wouldn’t it be relatively easy for them to work out who you are?

Protester: I get the sense that they are focussed on silencing the voices of discontent inside the Great Firewall. If something isn’t broadcast into China then… … What they most care about is whether you might stir up the masses. Like, well, frankly, I’m not all that clear myself. Like I’ve said, I have no experience in struggle.

Li Yuan: And that’s exactly why I’ve been so conflicted. While I appreciate how valuable it is for you to share your experiences with us, and important, too, I simply have no way of knowing what might happen.

So, let me ask you something else — feel free to answer as you wish, it’s entirely up to you: if something like this happens again, another protest of this kind, do you think you’ll get involved?

Protester: I will. That’s in part because I believe that the more people participate, overall the punishments meted out will average out as less per individual. The police do have their limitations, after all. So, rather than letting a small number of people take responsibility for everything that happens, I feel that each of us has ‘my duty’. So, if the opportunity arises, I’ll be going back into the streets.


Li Yuan: Okay. Then what suggestions do you have for others?

Protester: So, I’d advise people both for their own safety and that of others that they make sure that before the police nab you, delete any non-Mainland apps you might have on your phone, as well as the messages from and contacts of friends who think like you do. That’s because lately in Shanghai, as well as in other cities like Chengdu [in Sichuan], they are checking people’s phones at shopping malls and on the underground to see if they have any non-Mainland apps installed. So, it’s best if you get a cheap burner phone, one that you’re not afraid of having checked. Let them go ahead and do it! Nowadays, you have no other choice … …

Li Yuan: So it really is the ‘Xinjiang-ization’ [of China Proper]. People in Xinjiang have been doing this for years. Some Uyghurs carry a broken down phone whenever they go out and leave their real phones at home.

Protester: Yeah, one account I saw reported things like that. But that’s long gone. I remember trying to tell my mum about the things that were happening in Xinjiang, but she wouldn’t believe me.

Li Yuan: And now here it is happening in Shanghai.

Protester: Exactly. I’ve long been aware that, whatever they do to a select group of people might at some stage be applied to everyone else. But because until now this kind of thing wasn’t going on around them, tons of people simply didn’t believe it [could be happening anywhere].

Li Yuan: Is there anything else that you feel you’d like to share with everyone? I have to admit that, listening to you, for some reason I really feel churned up inside. I’m honestly moved by your bravery and I’m still conflicted about broadcasting our conversation.

Protester: Honestly, I don’t think I’m particularly brave. If I am, it’s only because everyone else has been so brave. I feel that, at the time … … I really didn’t think Shanghai people would chant slogans like that. Then, when I was released after spending twenty-four hours inside, I discovered that similar protests had broken out all over China. I must admit that really moved me. It’s because I’ve long been used to the idea that everyone only cares about looking out for themselves.

Li Yuan: That they were indifferent.

Protester: Exactly. Previously, so many things had happened, but people avoided saying anything about it, that’s why this time it came as such a complete surprise. It’s really given me a sense of hope.

[Note: For more on the theme of protest and hope, see ‘Ironic Points of Light’ — acts of redemption on the blank pages of history, 4 December 2022.]

Li Yuan: Same here. After protesters like you were detained in Shanghai [in the early hours of Monday 28 November] I didn’t think anything else would happen. Then it did, in Shanghai and then in Beijing … …

Protester: That’s right. Previous experience taught us that, as soon as they detain a few people everyone else is cowed into silence. Who’d have guessed that this time around, the voices of protest would become even more vociferous?

Li Yuan: Quite so. Why do you think people have been so daring this time?

Protester: I feel that we really have reached the absolute limit of frustration. People from a whole range of different groups and generations have been denied a normal everyday existence for far too long. Then things like Peng Zaizhou [the ‘Bridge Man’ in Beijing] and the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party [at which it was confirmed that Xi Jinping would stay in power, perhaps indefinitely] acted like a catalyst. The event in Urumqi [where some ten people died in an apartment fire] was an immediate trigger. It was something that everyone felt really brought it home. Their zero-covid policies and all of the extreme things that have happened under their aegis… people had this sense that anyone could die, or suffer at any moment, and for what?

Li Yuan: Can I ask then, how do you see your future, or rather the future of the country? Do you feel more confident about it now, more optimistic, even? Or just pessimistic?

Protester: It’s really complicated, in part because I know how tragically things ended in 1989. I can’t say that I feel confident that we can change things, or change the way those in power see the world. So I guess it’s going to be a very long struggle. But for now it’s great to see how many people are willing to resist. Resistance is the first step.

Li Yuan: That’s really well put. I really feel a sense of gratitude to you all. You have all been a ray of light in the darkness.

Protester: I really hope the darkness ends soon.

Li Yuan: Yes, many people of my age, many of my friends were moved to tears by what happened. Really, last weekend everyone obsessively watched the video clips [of protests in cities and at universities throughout China] that were constantly being posted. One friend was completely fixated watching videos all day from six thirty in the morning, crying all the while.

Protester: Your support also means a lot.

Li Yuan: We’ve really been deeply moved. Thank you, really, thank you so much.

Protester: I thank you, too.

[Note: See also Li Yuan, Proud, Scared and Conflicted. What the China Protesters Told Me., The New York Times, 29 November 2022.]





A pre-dawn scene at Urumqi Road, Shanghai, 27 November 2022