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At Pro-Palestine Encampments, Chinese Students Find Space for Expression and Solidarity
At Pro-Palestine Encampments, Chinese Students Find Space for Expression and Solidarity

At Pro-Palestine Encampments, Chinese Students Find Space for Expression and Solidarity

Students from at least 174 colleges and universities across six continents have erected encampments in solidarity with Palestine. Their movement has sprouted over the past few weeks, as many administrators have rejected student demands to disclose university investments and divest from entities that support the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestine—among other demands that demonstrate students’ opposition to the ongoing military campaign in Gaza. Amid some of these campus encampments, away from the spotlight, are Chinese students who have found unique opportunities to express their solidarity with Palestine, while braving the political risks of public activism abroad.

CDT Chinese editors archived “At College, There Are More Important Things Than Attending Classes,” a piece shared last week by the WeChat public account Growth Cooperative. In it, the author described how participating in campus protests, such as the Palestine solidarity encampments, can exert a more profound impact on a student’s life than merely attending classes:

My friends, parents, and older family members ask about the chaos on campus and warn me to stay far away from it, voicing their concern with comments like, “Why get involved with all that nonsense if it means neglecting your studies?”

While many believe that students should focus solely on their studies, I know from personal experience that participating in these real-life events has taught me many invaluable lessons.

[…] Becoming involved in a cause helps you to more quickly and viscerally comprehend the theoretical material you’ve only read about in books—theories of sociology, political science, journalism, economics, finance, media studies, history, literature, philosophy, psychology, and much more. When all of that abstract “knowledge” intersects with emotion—mingling with the sights, sounds, and smells of the moment—it becomes a permanent part of your memory, a facet of your corporeal existence.

In the process, you learn how to interact with those holding different opinions, how to communicate and empathize, how to control and express your emotions, how to strategically adjust action plans, and how to analyze the logic and legality of proposed actions by asking which actions are feasible, and which go too far. Of course, in the process of making so many decisions, you must also learn to accept responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. 

It is inevitable that in this process you will reflect on the world as it is now, and ask yourself what an ideal society and world might look like. The chasm between reality and the ideal makes you rethink who you are, who you want to be, who your friends are, and who you wish to avoid. 

All of this can teach students so much more, and impact their lives so much more profoundly, than attending a few more classes ever could. [Chinese]

Indeed, one Chinese student at Columbia University shared on Instagram a photo of the encampments from inside a building, captioned, “While I open the pages of history in the library, history is right in front of me.” As Liyan Qi mentioned in The Wall Street Journal, part of the appeal for Chinese students is the opportunity to see for themselves, in person, another youth protest movement:

One Chinese Columbia student said she has been posting about the protests on Chinese social media since last fall. She said she was in China during the 2022 [White Paper] protests and that there had been so little transparency about what was going on that she got most of her information from overseas Chinese posting about them on foreign social-media platforms Chinese can only access with virtual private networks, or VPNs.

“At least now, I’m seeing what’s happening with my own eyes,” she said. [Source]

WeChat account 结绳志 (Jiéshéngzhì, “Tying Knots“) shared a Chinese translation of “Letter from the Encampment: How Are You Holding Up?” The piece described how the encampments’ inclusive ethos has inspired some Chinese students to participate in the pro-Palestine movement:

I’m glad I wasn’t late this time. I’m relieved I don’t feel ashamed for not camping overnight with my friends and comrades, or for not being radical enough, or for not being able to attend every protest. In my field, I’ve always been an outlier: the Chinese girl who researches the Middle East. (What is she doing? What are her politics?) Although my interest was originally sparked by the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, I eventually gave up my research on Palestinian issues. I kept asking myself, “What qualifies me to write about Palestine? What do I know?” I took a step back because of my background and my qualifications—both of which were lacking. 

Being part of the encampments has changed everything. Now strangers and friends alike always ask me the same question, “How are you holding up?”

Nobody here pays any attention to my background. I no longer agonize over whether I have a distinctive viewpoint. I act, think and write with a heart broken for Palestine and a heart mended by love. These are my qualifications.

New York is a big city. Everyone is busy, and has things to do. Everyone has their own approach to the struggle. [Chinese]

But participation comes with greater risks for Chinese students. The Chinese embassy in the U.S. warned Chinese students about risks of attending protests about the war back in October, and inbound Chinese students have more broadly faced increased and often arbitrary scrutiny at immigration checkpoints to the U.S. Recently, some in Congress have made unfounded accusations that the CCP and TikTok may be behind the student protests, amid what some call a growing government “witch hunt” against certain Chinese citizens at American universities. Khushboo Razdan from the South China Morning Post reported on how Chinese students described the risks of joining the encampment movement, and how some chose to participate nonetheless:

Citing how protesting students were being “showered” with various disciplinary actions, [Lu, a 29-year-old Columbia University student from China,] said: “I can only imagine it to be worse for non-American students, especially people from my country.”

[…] A Columbia philosophy student from China who asked to be called “Gian” pointed to some Republican lawmakers calling for US student visas to be revoked as a primary reason why many Chinese students hesitated to get involved in the current protests.

[…] Another consideration among Chinese students is Beijing’s firm stance against social unrest, added [Gian], suggesting that China would not “publicly condemn the US” over students who might lose their visas over protest involvement.

[…One Chinese student who said he was visiting campus encampments daily to show support] said he was not always “this fearless”, but the sight of “crying Palestinians” trying to find their loved ones amid collapsed houses and rubble meant it became difficult to remain silent. [Source]

CitizensDailyCN, a diaspora group for overseas Chinese students on Instagram, shared a meme highlighting threats from numerous sources that discourage Chinese students from participating in the encampment movement:

Chinese students’ engagement in the encampment movement also provided opportunities to forge transnational solidarity. Wesleyan University’s student newspaper The Wesleyan Argus wrote about the creative, international, and communal elements of their students’ Palestine solidarity encampment:

Xiran Tan ’24, one of the booth’s organizers, explained their inspiration and rationale behind using calligraphy to express solidarity with Palestine.

“During Lunar New Year…I saw on Instagram [that “Asians for Palestine”] were doing a more Chinese/Asian-oriented protest for Palestine,” Tan said. “I thought it was a really good way to utilize traditional art, which we always thought to be just an old, patriarchal, and nationalist tradition. But we appropriate that for a more liberatory cause…and also, [in doing so,] liberating this form of art as well.”

[…] Tenzin Jamdol ’25, who also stopped by the booth to write Tibetan prayers for peace and freedom for Palestine, expressed that the multilingual calligraphy activity exemplified the student movement’s international focus.

“This is such a creative idea,” Jamdol said. “I think this really embodies transnational solidarity. Yesterday, [student speakers at the rally] mentioned how this is a moment to be in solidarity. No one’s free until everyone’s free.”

In addition to demonstrating solidarity that transcends cultural confines, Tan also wished to use calligraphy writing as a way to spark discourse within the Chinese international student community.

“It kind of speaks directly to the Chinese audience, which is an audience that I want to reach,” Tan said. “Just because it’s out in the open, I really want to have people gather and enjoy this activity as a communal activity as well as an opportunity to engage in discussions about why we care about Palestine—because I think, especially within the Chinese international student community, there’s not much discussion, and I really want to hear what people are thinking.” [Source]

In other universities’ student newspapers and on social media, photos circulated of supportive Chinese-language signs and slogans at campus encampments, many of which drew connections between different rights movements. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one sign read, “White Paper Revolutionists for Palestine,” and another read, “I am Uyghur, I am Tibetan, I am Hongkonger, I am Taiwanese, I am Palestinian.” At Northwestern University, one sign read, “No double standards: Uyghurs, Ukraine, Palestine.”

Many students drew connections to Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The Palestinian Solidarity Action Network (巴勒斯坦团结行动网络) and “queers_feminists_4_pa1estine” (a group that also publishes mostly in Chinese) shared on Instagram a Chinese translation of an op-ed in the Harvard Crimson titled “Ramadan Mubarak: A Call for Collective Liberation” by Kawsar Yasin, a Uyghur student calling for the joint liberation of Palestinians and Uyghurs. One sign at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) read, “From Palestine to Xinjiang, Chinese students against settler colonialism.”

Chinese students’ support for the movement was seen at encampments at a wide variety of universities. Students at the University of Minnesota shared a sign with a famous Lu Xun quote: “Beyond boundless lands and oceans, countless souls are all connected.” (The quote was seen on other posters, as well.) NYU’s student newspaper Washington Square News shared a photo of “Liberate Palestine, long live the people” scribbled in chalk in simplified Chinese. Covering the encampment at George Washington University (which included students from numerous neighboring universities), Wainao shared a photo of “Chinese4Palestine” written in chalk. At the University of British Columbia, there were signs that read, “Chinese feminists for Palestine.” Signs and walls painted with “Chinese Queer Feminists for Free Palestine” were seen at Duke University, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University. Chinese translations of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” were seen at the University of Toronto, University of Chicago, and Yale University. At the City University of New York, one sign read “Liberate Gaza, Revolution of Our Times,” echoing the Hong Kong protest slogan.

Some Chinese student groups drew humorous connections between repression at the encampments and repression in China. CitizensDailyCN shared a split-screen photo of a wall erected on the NYU campus the day after the encampments began and buildings in China fenced in with walls during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the caption, “Xi: That was my idea!” 

On Chinese social media, some reactions to the encampments were sympathetic towards the students. One popular Weibo post drew a comparison between UCLA pro-Palestine students who were attacked by outside counter-protesters and young Chinese protesters of the May Fourth Movement who were beaten by thugs hired by the KMT. Under another Weibo post sharing the Chinese student’s “Letter from the Encampment,” some of the most popular comments read, “I believe that we will win. Stay safe”; “We will never rest until the [universities] divest”; and “Wish you the best.” 

Translations by Alexander Boyd, Tony Hu, and Cindy Carter.