Zhao, not his real name, is a 22-year-old Shanghai native who recently graduated from a university in Beijing. As hundreds took to the streets across China last month to protest the Chinese Communist Party, he staged a one-man demonstration on campus where he held up a blank piece of paper—a symbol of everything protesters want to say but do not dare.

The protests were more widespread and larger than any in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and came after years of Covid-19 lockdowns that may have saved millions of lives but came at the cost of people’s freedom. The demonstrations initially started as an outpouring of anger over a fire that killed at least 10 people in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi (residents believe pandemic restrictions delayed the rescue), but they evolved in many locations to include broader calls for freedom and rights.

Speaking over an encrypted messaging app, Zhao reflected on the protests, the young people powering them, and China’s future. This interview has been translated from mandarin and edited for clarity.

—Jessie Lau

On Sunday after the protests began, I stood alone in front of my student dorms holding up a sheet of blank paper. After an hour, I was told to leave by teachers from the security office. Three men came up to me and asked what I was doing; I lied and said I was exercising. Afterward, I thought I saw one of them following me—probably to make sure I didn’t continue protesting.

I supported this white paper protest, because I felt that not doing anything would be even more unbearable. These past three years, China’s zero-Covid policy has meant that half of my undergraduate experience has been in lockdown. Many of us feel like we’ve been living a fake university life. We’re young and energetic but trapped behind a fence, looking out at the rest of the world.

This sense of powerlessness and fear makes us feel disheartened about our future. Many of us say we’ll be “last generation” [i.e., choose not to have kids, which is also a form of anti-government resistance] and choose to “lie flat” [do the bare minimum rather than strive for anything], because we don’t think that things will get better. We’re unwilling to allow the unborn generation to come into this world and endure the torture of not being free.

But that fire in Urumqi pushed us over the edge. There have been many tragedies like the “Xuzhou chained woman” and the “Guizhou bus crash,” and many of us expressed our indignation then. But we’d still naively hoped that after the 20th National Congress, the current absurd Covid policy can be changed and such tragedies will stop happening. Then Xi was reelected and zero-Covid just continued. Nothing changed. So we’re holding up blank papers, because we know what we’ll face can’t be worse than the status quo anyway.

Personally, I think it’s difficult for anyone to remain indifferent when you see so much sad news every day. Because of Covid-zero, many people have been laid off or had their salaries cut. Take where I live as an example: When one person tests positive, all restaurants in the area must close and wait until the lockdown is lifted before resuming business.

Access to medical care has also been a huge problem. There’s a joke online that goes, “You can die from any disease but Covid-19.” During the Shanghai lockdown in May, I volunteered to collect records of patients experiencing difficulties and call community centers or hospitals for help. I got in touch with a lady whose mother had leukemia and needed monthly chemotherapy and radiation, but her local hospital stopped offering consultations. She was so anxious, because she felt like her mother was just being left to die. In the end, I found another hospital willing to provide the treatments.

I was very excited when the protests broke out, because they were a new and incredible experience for me. It’s difficult for us mainlanders to have any firsthand experience of social movements. Many around me are apathetic about politics and public affairs. They either don’t see it as their business or don’t want to get involved. I used to have this mentality, but the white paper movement energized me. It was the first time I saw so many people who felt the way I did.

Unlike most protesters who are calling for reform within the existing system, I strongly hope the Party will step down. Whether it’s Mao Zedong or Xi Jinping, I think everyone who has been in power all share one thing: a desire to control. They want to impose total uniformity of thoughts rather than advocate for dialogue. It’s a very patriarchal mindset. I want the system to be dismantled and for everyone to be able to speak freely.

When I first came across virtual private networks [VPNs], I was just curious and wanted to try this new thing. After I breached the Great Firewall, I realized it was a tool for receiving different information. I often consume news from foreign media and follow overseas YouTubers. I like to watch them talk about their daily life and hear different perspectives.

A few decades ago, we were more closely connected with the rest of the world. But recently, it seems that things have gotten much worse. It’s like we’ve turned back the clocks. I’ve never studied abroad and have only been on vacation outside of China once. I don’t know what I want to do in the future, but I’m probably looking to settle abroad. This is because I think the situation in China is unlikely to change in my lifetime.

Here, censorship doesn’t come just from the government but also sources like teachers and parents. There is a hierarchical social chain, with censorship at all levels, all leading up to the central government. I hate this. In addition to denying our individual feelings, it creates an atmosphere of isolation and fear. It makes us rethink our ideas before we speak out loud. We young people have a catchphrase: “Is it OK to say this?” It’s supposed to be banter, but it shows the negative impact of censorship on our mindset and self-expression.

In China there are also “little pinks” [Chinese nationalists who fervently defend the Party line online], and they’re like tentacles of the Party in the public sphere. I hate the way they express themselves. It’s always in binaries. They attack dissidents and can’t tolerate other voices. Many of them don’t even know why they think the way they do.

I want change, and that’s why I am standing up for it. But I’m pessimistic about the outcome of this movement. When the Party suppressed the pro-democracy movement in 1989, it showed its determination to defend the system. I think the impact of this movement will gradually diminish, because most people don’t hate the system and are more inclined toward reforming it. So I think the government may seize the opportunity to divide us as much as possible. They’ll make some concessions, but choose repression over dialogue.

Recently, I saw an online post from someone seeking help. The user said her friend was being surveilled and interrogated by police after participating in a protest. She said her friend was looking for housing and so I responded, as I’ll be leaving my current apartment soon. When we got in touch, I learned that she actually didn’t need physical help anymore, only moral support. She had already been detained for 24 hours in June for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Police also visited her company for “weekly meetings,” but she decided to protest anyway. Now, her messages are being monitored, and she’s terrified.

In the future, I’m worried the authorities will use centralized quarantine facilities as detention centers for dissidents. Then they can kill two birds with one stone. In short, the whole mainland can be turned into an environment like in Xinjiang. I truly want to express my support for those who are speaking up for freedom: Uyghurs, Tibetans, and people in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Iran etc., especially all the women. I hope they can stay safe, brave, and free.

I know others from my university who have also been protesting. None of us have slept well, because we’ve been anxious and concerned, but I’m happy to have such friends. When it comes to my family though, they’re more like bystanders. I don’t feel they support me. They probably have the same mentality as most mainlanders: that public issues are far removed from their lives. Sometimes I feel sad about it, but there’s nothing I can do. I know I can’t change their minds.

In my opinion, only a small number are fighting for issues like rights for minorities. But the movement is “decentralized.” As I said, people’s civic and democratic awareness may only just be budding. It’s not easy for people to realize the rights they have, and it may be more difficult for them to understand the oppression of others. The movement has been criticized for not being unified, but I think this is why protesters have shown a high degree of autonomy. I think it’s a start. We have a long way to go.

On the government’s recent lifting of some of the more serious Covid-zero restrictions, I think it makes sense and has more to do with the fact that the economy and people’s livelihoods are on the verge of collapse. I don’t think it means that the government has truly heard our voices—they’re only making small concessions for the sake of stability. What I really want is for the Party to step down and for an end to dictatorial rule, and so I don’t believe it’s enough. The Party will likely still hunt down the dissidents who spoke out during this movement.

For me, I hope that this movement can survive and that all those who have been arrested can be freed. But whatever happens, I’m proud of everyone who dared to speak out.