The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s rare protests spark demonstrations of solidarity around globe

People hold up blank sheets of paper during a protest over China's “zero covid” policy in Hong Kong on Monday. (Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

HONG KONG — Protests over Beijing’s strict covid response have spread from China to cities and college campuses around the world to show solidarity with the rare anti-government demonstrations erupting across the country.

In Asia, Europe and North America, demonstrators, including Chinese nationals, attended rallies in town squares, at subway stations and outside Chinese embassies.

The protests in China were triggered by a deadly fire in Xinjiang, in the country’s northwest, that killed 10 people after emergency services could not get close enough to an apartment building engulfed in flames. Many blamed the tragedy on the government’s enforcement of its unpopular “zero covid” approach, which involves strict lockdowns and travel restrictions in an attempt to eradicate the virus completely, saying lockdown-related measures hampered rescue efforts.

What you need to know about China’s covid protests

Such demonstrations are extremely rare in China, where authorities move quickly to stamp out all forms of dissent. Authorities are especially wary of protests at universities, the site of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 that ended in a bloody crackdown around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Here’s what the demonstrations around the world looked like.

Hong Kong

Summer, a 20-year-old student from mainland China, was among dozens of people, some Chinese nationals and others Hong Kong locals, gathered by the subway station in Hong Kong’s Central district on Monday holding pieces of white A4 paper — a symbol of China’s pervasive censorship — and a flower to remember the Urumqi victims. Wearing a face mask, she was surrounded by dozens of police officers who were attempting to gather information on other protesters over potential violations of covid measures.

“The Chinese people always have a high tolerance of the government. The reason why they came out is because a lot of them cannot carry on living,” Summer told The Washington Post. “Their basic demand is only to live on. People are angry because they think their most basic rights are not protected.”

The city has not seen any large-scale protests since the pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019, after the government passed a vaguely worded security law that outlawed dissent, as well as covid social-distancing measures.

She also compared the new wave of protests to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, adding: “What gives me hope this time is it differentiates from 33 years ago, where previously it was only demands made from students, but now it’s demands from people from all walks of life, including farmers, who felt their lives being crushed.”

“I wanted to join because I was not born yet in 1989, and now I’m 20. I felt hopeful toward this country. I hope to express my opinions on this issue so I stand out.”

Local media also reported over the weekend that students had gathered on the Hong Kong University campus to express their support for the demonstrations in the mainland, before stopping after police arrived.

Taiwan

Zhou Fengsuo, 55, a Chinese dissident who was imprisoned for his role helping lead the Tiananmen Square protests, was among those who attended a vigil held in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, on Sunday. He said a total of 200 people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan gathered in the capital’s Liberty Square to share poems and express their support for the Chinese protesters.

“We want freedom; I think that is our basic human right. And without freedom there is no dignity,” he told The Post in a telephone interview.

The protests are a response to Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian style of rule, he said. “It’s Xi Jinping and the fact that he crowned himself again a month ago,” Zhou said, referring to the Chinese leader’s securing a third term last month. “It’s a Communist regime that leaves no room for people’s freedom and their basic political rights. It’s the zero covid policy that puts people in jail in their own homes.”

He said the widespread protests reminded him of 1989, adding: “We are seeing for the first time in Shanghai hundreds of people gathered together to call for the end of CCP [Chinese Communist Party], the end of Xi Jinping’s dictatorship. It’s never happened before in the last 33 years.”

Rare protests against China’s ‘zero covid’ policy erupt across country

Taiwanese state news outlet CNA showed people gathering with candles at the vigil, reporting that they held up blank sheets of paper and chanted: “China needs freedom,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” “Rest in peace for the dead” and “Continue to fight.”

Protests against China’s “zero covid” policy spread to cities around the country on Nov. 27. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

Britain

More than 100 protesters gathered outside the Chinese Embassy in London late Sunday, according to Sky News, which reported that they paid tribute to those killed in the Urumqi fire and accused China of detaining protesters in Shanghai.

“People in China are being oppressed,” a representative for a protest organization known as the China Deviants Group, identified only as Eve, told Sky News while wearing a face covering. “We have been oppressed for years and decades and we want to change that. Somebody needs to stand up; we need to stand up. To stand against this authoritarian regime.”

In Oxford, England, a video uploaded to Twitter by Uyghur human rights campaigner Rayhan Asat appeared to show another small vigil held outside the university town’s Bodleian Library on Sunday. About 50 people attended the Oxford rally, Asat said. The Xinjiang region, the location of the deadly Urumqi fire, is home to the largely Muslim Uyghur population, whose members have in recent years been forced into “reeducation” programs by the Chinese government.

“I want to talk about the feeling that has brought each and every one of you out of your libraries, out of your workplaces, out of your homes to be assembled in this square today. That feeling is hope,” a man whose face was covered can be heard saying in the video before a candlelit vigil. “I’m sure many of you like myself could not sleep last night as we watch what happens, what’s happening in our homelands.”

U.S. and Canada

College campuses across the United States are also planning vigils for the victims of the Urumqi fire, with one set to take place Monday evening at Yale University and another on Wednesday at Stanford University. Organizers at Stanford said their rally was for the fire victims, as well as “all the lives lost in China under the zero covid policy.”

Meanwhile, in Canada, a video filmed outside the Chinese Consulate in Toronto and posted to Twitter on Sunday showed Mandarin-speaking demonstrators chanting slogans calling for the fall of the Chinese Communist Party and expressing solidarity with the protesters in mainland China.

Japan

People gathered for a vigil at Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku railway station Sunday to commemorate the victims of the Urumqi fire. According to Reuters, about 90 people attended, including mainland Chinese citizens. One student interviewed by the wire agency, identified only as Emmanuel, said the vigil was about more than just the fire in Urumqi: “At the core of it is China’s system.”

Sands reported from London. Lily Kuo contributed to this report.

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