Last month, global protests unfurled in the wake of the Chinese Communist Party's National Congress. Dissenters around the world called for dignity, freedom, and an end to "zero COVID" in China. At George Washington University (GWU), an anonymous group of Chinese students joined the protests, continuing their monthslong campus campaign against the CCP and its censors.
Because of the very real potential for reprisal against the students and their families both at home in China and here in the United States, their anonymity is vitally important—and closely guarded. But while they were posting flyers recently, a man approached them, spoke to them in Chinese, demanded that they identify themselves, and pulled out his phone and pressed record. Months earlier, some of their fellow students had demanded their university unmask and punish them. Their anonymity, so carefully preserved, remains on a knife's edge.
On an October evening, in a dorm room near flyers advertising one of the Chinese student groups they had criticized, I met some of these dissenting students for an interview, using pseudonyms. Johnson, Sam, and a student who preferred to be simply called "a Chinese student" hail from mainland China, while Carl is from Taiwan. Alex, an American student, is an ally. We talked about the protests they've organized on campus, the global anti-CCP movement, and the disputes over who represents Chinese students abroad. Established, politically active Chinese student groups, usually Chinese Students and Scholars Association chapters, believe they speak for all Chinese students, GWU's anonymous students say. But they dissent.
What does an individual in an oppressive society owe his fellow citizens when he has the opportunity to speak freely? Does he have a duty to say something, even if it puts him in harm's way?
To most Americans, this may come across as an abstraction. We all have different ideas about citizenship, what it requires of us, and our obligations to other Americans. But these debates take place within our free society. The parameters, and the stakes, are different. The consequences we fear are usually social, not legal.
To China's politically dissident students, though, whose travels take them from Barcelona to Brisbane to Berkeley, this is a profound question. Their status as international students abroad grants them temporary reprieve from the CCP's most blatant and immediate forms of suppression and protections—on paper, at least—for their right to speak freely in their campus and host country. Those liberties, though, come with an asterisk. Chinese students know all too well that their activities remain closely surveilled even overseas.
But does this freedom, poisoned as it may be, ask something of those individuals during their academic careers? For a group of anonymous Chinese students and their allies engaged in an ongoing political campaign on campus, the answer is clear. This year, they've found their voice, along with a sense of responsibility and their place in a global fight for freedom.
The Beginnings of a Movement
Criticism of the CCP has been rising in the ranks of censored topics on American campuses. Whether it's among professors adapting their classrooms to skirt Hong Kong's oppressive national security law, administrators fearful of alienating lucrative funding or partnership opportunities, or international students worried that basic academic discussions will cause legal trouble at home, there is a growing problem in higher education. This problem comes with global implications: It's getting a lot harder to talk critically about Xi Jinping, the CCP, and the human rights violations taking place in China.
This shift was on full display at GWU in February when the students launched their first anonymous protest and created a chain reaction across campus. Shortly before the 2022 Beijing Olympics, some of the students posted artwork from Australia-based Chinese artist Badiucao satirizing China's human rights record and the ethical issues raised by its hosting of the Olympics. If they had intended to prove a point about the climate for China's critics, it certainly worked.
Sam told me it took less than 24 hours before their peers shared the posters on WeChat. Then "other Chinese students spotted it on WeChat" and "through CSSA or private emails or other school channels they reported it to the provost and president." Alex added that the posters were also reported to the university's diversity office, with students claiming they constituted racial harassment.
The anonymous students were frustrated that many of their campus critics singled out only one of the posters, which showed an Olympic curler with a COVID germ, without the context of the group of images also depicting violence against Uyghurs and Tibetans, and suggested that there was a bigoted implication about COVID and China.
Things quickly went downhill. GWU's Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) expressed immediate displeasure, calling for the responsible students to be "punished severely." The posters "insulted China," the CSSA said, and were "not only trampling on the Olympic spirit" but represented "a naked attack on the Chinese nation." Not to be outdone, the GWU Chinese Cultural Association, another campus group, called for an investigation into the posters, which they claimed was "misleading and offensive propaganda" outside the "scope" of free speech, and complained that the artwork depicting violence against Uyghurs and Tibetans was offensive "from the perspectives of students who love peace and advocate ethnic unity."
"People on WeChat mostly denounced the poster," one of the GWU dissident students said. "It was a landslide. Some people are being nationalistic, some are just following the horde mentality. CSSA thinks they are the leaders of mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese. This is not exclusive to George Washington University, but to all CSSAs in postsecondary education."
Throughout our conversation, this frustration among the dissident Chinese students at GWU came up repeatedly. By using leverage over students and their connections, they said, CSSA chapters were presenting themselves as the lone voice of the Chinese student population abroad, attempting to portray CSSA leadership's nationalistic views as the position of all Chinese students. For students hoping to stand out among their peers in the race for coveted appointments back home in China, vocally defending the Chinese government in a CSSA leadership position looks like a smart career move.
CSSAs "feast on this system of Chinese students who come to America to study and want to go back to China," he said. Not only do they help students get jobs or recommendation letters, they also provide them with the comfort of familiar language and customs, an important draw even for apolitical students uninterested in the group's nationalistic bent but eager for a support network in a foreign country. "They can help students with their lives and that's very powerful."
Initially, the CSSA's wish for punishment was granted. In a private email to the complaining students, GWU President Mark S. Wrighton wrote that he was "personally offended" by the art and "would have all of these offensive posters removed as soon as possible." He added that he was "saddened by this terrible event" and would "undertake an effort to determine who is responsible."
Yes, the president of a prestigious American university in the heart of Washington, D.C., promised to use his position of authority to identify students responsible for criticizing a global superpower. Unwittingly, Wrighton agreed to do exactly what the Chinese government has been attempting worldwide: unmask and punish the CCP's critics, even those far outside its borders.
What frustrated the student activists most was that Wrighton didn't appear to be curious about the posters and what they meant. Why was he so quick to judge without even looking at the artwork's message? When students complained to him about the posters, he took their word for it, no questions asked. Wrighton was likely hoping to appear proactive to student allegations about bigotry against Chinese students. Instead, he put his thumb on the scale in a conflict between students about their home country's political positions.
With scrutiny from critics, the media, and political figures, Wrighton quickly reversed course. He called his response, as well as the university's no-questions-asked censorship, "mistakes." He deserves credit for reaching this conclusion. But it remains troubling that, without even a moment's hesitation, he initially committed university resources to a witch hunt that could have ultimately imperiled his students, who are at risk of consequences much worse than a code of conduct violation.
I asked the students how they felt after Wrighton threatened to unmask them—were they angry? Frightened? They were "more than a little bit afraid" of the consequences, they admitted, but said something that surprised me: It energized their movement. Only two students in their group were originally responsible for posting the initial Badiucao artwork, but Wrighton's censorship threats created a "comradeship." Suddenly, the larger group of students in their network, around a dozen or more, was "drawn in now to this effort of support" and grew into more active members, Alex said. Rather than scaring them into silence, the threat of censorship affirmed to them the importance of rejecting it.
A Failed Divestment Effort and a Growing International Campaign
By the time the new school term began in the fall, the students were ready to take up another fight. This time, they set their sights not just on decrying the CCP but on demanding their university assess its relationship, and perhaps complicity, with China. Working with the Athenai Institute, a nonpartisan, student-led group combating CCP influence in higher education, the students drafted a resolution introduced into the Student Association.
They called on GWU to protect its international student community from threats to their expressive rights, adopt Human Rights Watch's Code of Conduct for resisting CCP interference, and "fully audit and divest GWU from companies complicit in the Uyghur genocide and all other human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party."
The resolution didn't even make it to the Student Association's General Assembly or past the initial round of voting.
Athenai's co-founder and chairman Rory O'Connor, who has been working with the GWU students, is leading the charge for these resolutions at a growing number of universities.
"Georgetown passed a resolution two weeks ago unanimously reaffirming that they wanted divestment at Georgetown," he told me. "Catholic University, unanimous. UC Irvine, unanimous. Every university that has pushed for a divestment resolution, it has been unanimous." He's found success elsewhere. But not at George Washington.
O'Connor alleges that student government senators undermined the resolution for political reasons, making vague claims that it would harm Chinese students. Some others abstained from the vote simply because they did not want to touch it.
"They're saying this would actually hurt Chinese students and telling other senators they were threatening to resign," he said, even though it was intended to protect their right to speak freely. He also informed the senators that Chinese students had co-authored it. They even asked for proof that it would not harm Chinese students. "That's what killed this."
The resolution was temporarily defeated, but the students remained undeterred.
That weekend, following "in the footsteps of conscientious Chinese students through history," the students unveiled a new set of posters across campus, a "Battle Cry for Freedom." Calling it their Big Character Poster, referring to the publicly posted, handwritten political writings popularized through eras in Chinese history, including the Cultural Revolution and democracy movements, they decried censorship in China and on campus, "zero COVID" restrictions, CSSAs, the treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities, and the silencing of labor activists. "We, the Chinese people, shout out: enough is enough!"
The very censorship they denounced found them soon enough—many of their posters were quickly torn down.
But days after anonymous dissidents at GWU issued their proclamation, a lone man conducted his own demonstration in China, a shocking act ahead of the 20th Communist Party Congress that caught the world's attention and resulted in his arrest. Now referred to as Bridge Man, the protester hung banners over Beijing's Sitong Bridge that read, "We want freedom, not lockdowns; elections, not rulers. We want dignity, not lies. Be citizens, not enslaved people," and called President Xi Jinping a "dictator and national traitor." While internet censors scrubbed any evidence of the protest from social media, Xi further solidified his stranglehold over the CCP during the National Congress.
Once again, GWU's anonymous Chinese students leaped into action, encouraged by the man willing to risk arrest (and worse) to speak his mind on one of Beijing's bridges. Alongside the Big Character Posters, they placed a new set calling Xi a tyrant and a traitor.
"History may not bring sinners to justice, and history may not remember what we did do, but history will remember what we didn't do," they wrote.
In conversation, this idea came up multiple times: What do they see as their responsibility as Chinese citizens? One of the students said, "I feel one day we Chinese people have to make a choice, and I think that's when we attack Taiwan. One day we will have to make that choice so we'd better be emotionally prepared." Carl, a Taiwanese member of the group, feels a similar responsibility, especially as China tries to "export" its system.
"There was an obligation for me to support" this movement, he said. "Taiwan has democratized, China has not. There's a need for me to continue the struggle for more democracy in Asia." Laughing, he added that when he talks to some peers from mainland Chinese on campus, they correct him: he is from China.
In this protest, though, they weren't alone. At campuses worldwide, students—some organized, some acting alone—created their own versions of the Sitong Bridge protest, from New York University to Germany's University of Göttingen to Canada's McGill University. The National Congress may have offered Xi Jinping another opportunity to cement his power, but it also provoked students into discovering their own power, individually and as a group. They may be censored, they may be surveilled, but they nevertheless chose to speak. Even if it doesn't produce change today or tomorrow or next year, the act of speaking itself is meaningful.
These protests "empowered" Chinese students, Johnson says. It reminded them, "We are not alone."
Fear and an Uncertain Future
It's impossible to say whether this spirit will continue to simmer on campuses or whether GWU's anonymous Chinese students' future protests will be lonelier prospects as other movements fizzle out. But the elation they feel about the spike in student protest against Xi remains tinged with fear, both about what could happen and what already has.
On October 13, the night when protests were taking place globally, the students experienced a frightening incident of surveillance. While putting up copies of both of their most recent posters, they said, a man they suspect to be a Chinese nationalist stopped to stare at their signs. He quickly asked them, in Chinese, what organization they were from. They didn't answer. That's when he pulled out his phone and began to record them. "It was a pretty scary moment," Sam told me. "It's like the person has power over you," Alex added. "Who is he going to share this with?"
Thousands of miles away and only days later, staff from the Chinese consulate in Manchester, U.K., physically seized protest signs and attacked a protester, sending him to the hospital for treatment. To students like GWU's dissenters, the message of events like this is clear: Even in free countries, Chinese authorities feel entitled to enact their censorship schemes.
From brazen physical attacks to subtle surveillance, China's critics, especially its citizens, have reason to fear. Johnson told me that he regularly writes letters to his parents. The last time he was home, he saw one of his letters appeared to have been opened before it reached them.
For reasons like these, their activism remains anonymous. They want to protect themselves, of course, but when I asked the most important motivator, one of the students said, "It's obvious. You have families in China. That's strong enough."
In an era where social media allows us to easily broadcast our virtues and craft ideal images of ourselves as socially conscious people—sharing a link when we've donated to a charity, uploading a photo of ourselves volunteering for a cause, updating our accounts to display our support for a movement—it can seem increasingly rare to encounter individuals whose activism and beliefs are unaffiliated with their real name.
But anonymity is necessary for these students. The responsibility they feel to do what they think is right will not land their faces on magazine covers or their names on lists of notable activists. Not even their families are aware, they told me. Some students hide bad grades or excessive partying from their parents. These students conceal dissent.
"My parents don't know. I'd like to but I don't have a safe communicative way to talk to them. They may fear for my future and also about their safety," Johnson said. But he thinks they might be proud if they knew. "My father participated in the student movement in 1989 so actually I think he would appreciate my participation in this movement, too. But his only concern would be my and my family's safety."
Sam said much of the same, adding that his parents would be unlikely to approve of his anti-CCP views in the first place. "I pretend I'm a fence sitter," he says. "Stay low and try to stay in the states" is his plan. "Before you secure your job and degrees, you stay low."
Johnson hopes to stay in the United States long-term, too. "If by any chance China can get a little democratized I will go back," he added. "But it seems unlikely in the near future."
They know democratization, if it's ever to happen, is a long way off and that engaging in risky expression advocating for it is more likely to bring them trouble than change in China. Nevertheless, they continue to put up posters. After all, "history will remember what we didn't do."
SARAH MCLAUGHLIN is director of targeted advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). FIRE has called on GWU to protect its students' rights to criticize China without threat of censorship or punishment.