On Oct. 30, a small group of Kenyon students gathered on Middle Path to protest Chinese President Xi Jinping, who recently began a historic third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The protest was organized by Chinese international students, who communicated with the student body anonymously through Assistant Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies Michelle Mood in order to protect themselves and their families in China against retribution by the Chinese government.
Xi, who has served as head of the CCP since 2012 and president of China since 2013, secured his third five-year term as general secretary at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October. In doing so, he defied the unwritten two-term precedent for party leaders — a move that comes only four years after he removed presidential term limits in 2018, enabling him to continue serving as both president and party leader for the foreseeable future. Notably, there is no obvious successor — all the members of the Politburo Standing Committee are 60 years of age or older — suggesting that Xi may plan to continue his rule for years to come.
Xi has also faced criticism for China’s “zero-COVID” policy, a strategy geared towards strict containment of the virus to the point of locking down neighborhoods — or even entire cities — when COVID-19 cases surface, leaving residents locked in their homes for weeks amid extreme food shortages. Last week, a 3-year-old boy in Lanzhou died of carbon monoxide poisoning when COVID-19 lockdown policies prevented his father from reaching a hospital in time.
Kenyon’s protest comes amid a wave of protests around the world that began on Oct. 13 when a lone man in Beijing hung two banners over a highway overpass — one calling for freedom and dignity over lies and lockdowns, the other labeling Xi a “traitorous despot.” Although he was arrested, his action initiated a wave of protests from Chinese students across U.S. colleges and universities, Kenyon included.
“Dictatorship Kills More Than the Worst Virus. Join Us To #StopXitler,” read a poster advertising Kenyon’s event. The poster featured a cartoon drawing of Xi with his head spiked to resemble the proteins of a virus, with a black “X” crossing out his face. On Oct. 30, the protesters began in front of Old Kenyon and walked down Middle Path holding signs denouncing Xi’s regime. “End CCP Dictatorship. Democracy Now,” one sign read. “Stop Uighur GenoXIde,” read another.
A United Nations report from earlier this year confirmed the mass detention and abuse of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group, in China’s Xinjiang province.
All the protestors wore face coverings, and one was dressed in a head-to-toe Halloween costume. Another held up a sign prohibiting pictures and videos of the protest. Mood emphasized in an email to the Collegian the dangers of openly criticizing the Chinese government, noting that while criticizing politicians on a local level might be permitted, criticism of the CCP is never okay. “Consequences could include harassment or arrests of Kenyon student[s’] relatives back in China. Most of the protestors have no choice but to go back to China, so their safety depends on anonymity,” she said.
One of the protestors, who was born in the United States but was raised in Beijing, gave a speech outside Rosse Hall criticizing China’s actions under Xi, mentioning friends in Shanghai who starved in their rooms for two months during under the “zero-COVID” policy, friends in Inner Mongolia forbidden by Chinese authorities from speaking their native tongue and LGBTQ+ friends who were forced into conversion camps. They ended with a warning to their fellow Chinese citizens who supported Xi and the CCP:
“A hundred years later, when China embraces the light of democracy, liberty and equality, your name will be erased, your threats fall apart, your silence despised. Our spirits, along with our successors, will spit on your graveyard, call you a traitor of China, because you worship the golden image of a tyrant more than the flesh and blood of your own people,” they said.
The protestors concluded by singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Miserables, a song that has been historically used in protests around the globe, including ones in Hong Kong, South Korea, Ukraine and Sri Lanka. In April, a clip of the song spread across social media in protest of the lockdown in Shanghai but was blocked by the Chinese government.
The students behind the protest, who were granted anonymity for their own safety, explained their reasoning behind organizing the protest at Kenyon. “We wish to encourage [Chinese students] to stand up for their rights and freedom and tell those who think like us that they are not alone. On the other hand, we are well aware that we need to resist the fear rooted in our bodies — it is the most concrete and intimate embodiment of the state apparatus’s violence and censorship,” they wrote in an email to the Collegian.
Mood told the Collegian that she had received several emails from students and administrators expressing reservations about the protest, some concerned that Chinese students who did not support the protest would reveal their fellow students’ identities to the Chinese government, and some who believed that the organizers of the protest were Americans who should not be holding such a protest. The organizers said that they had noticed their posters being torn down by Chinese students who disagreed with their message and had received threats of being reported to the CCP.
Reflecting on the protest, Mood said: “I hope the American students have been able to learn something about Chinese political issues, and maybe the Chinese students have learned something about the way Americans take freedoms and rights as absolutes — such that all nonviolent protests that conform to Kenyon’s generous protest policy have no reason to be stopped.”
The organizers of the protest can be contacted through the anonymous email email@example.com. They have a Telegram group chat for students interested in the cause.