UBC students organized a candlelight vigil and rally in front of the Nest on the evening of December 1 for victims of a recent apartment fire in Urumqi in Xinjiang, China.
On November 24, a fire broke out in an apartment building in Urumqi, leading to the death of at least ten residents and injuries to nine others, although victims’ family members have disputed the official death toll. Witnesses said strict COVID-19 policies limited the ability of residents to leave the building and for firefighters from getting close to the scene. Urumqi local government officials have denied that government policy was responsible for the deaths.
The apartment building fire has triggered a wave of protests in China and around the world against strict zero-COVID-19 policies and government censorship, with some calling for the resignation of General Secretary Xi Jinping.
Many of the organizers and speakers at the UBC vigil had previously connected at a rally held in downtown Vancouver.
Attendance at the UBC vigil was spontaneous, with many students joining the rally while passing by. Speakers addressed the crowd in English and Mandarin, with Mandarin-speaking attendees offering translations. Students in attendance held blank pieces of paper, a tactic widely adopted by protestors in China to show their dissatisfaction with government censorship.
Many speakers, including international students and former Chinese residents, did not share their names or identities for privacy and safety reasons. An event organizer noted that speakers and organizers were Chinese citizens — a challenge to Chinese government officials' characterizations of international protest as a sign of foreign interference into Chinese politics.
In addition to opposing current COVID-19 policies and restriction of press and speech, speakers made references to various incidences of political repression in the preceding decades, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident, the detention of political dissident Liu Xiaobo and human rights violations against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Students chanted slogans demanding freedom of art, freedom of press and an end to tyranny.
Self-identified Queer and feminist speakers and activists also called for an end to gender and sexuality-based discrimination.
Chris, an international student from China, gave a speech in Mandarin in which he decried government policies and denounced the Communist Party’s current stance towards Hong Kong and Taiwan. His last name was not provided.
He said that three years ago he opposed the students protesting against the Chinese government’s treatment of Hong Kong. He said he has since changed his stance and now supports this issue.
In accordance with some of the protests in China, students also took the opportunity to express their solidarity with international human rights movements, including the ongoing Mahsa Amini protests in Iran and the protests against the invasion of Ukraine. An unidentified speaker also called for attendees, particularly international students, to oppose institutional prejudice in Canada, specifically highlighting women’s rights and solidarity with Indigenous, Black and Queer Canadians.
When asked for comment on the vigil, Alex, a student speaker from Xinjiang, said in an interview he was glad to see the high attendance of Chinese students in spite of potential risk or backlash. His last name has been omitted for his safety.
“I’m just very proud that a lot of international students from China showed up, and that more and more international students are realizing how the Chinese government treats them and their family … I hope UBC can support us more, even by sending out a letter, saying anything.”