HONG KONG, Nov 28 (Reuters) – Protests against China’s strict zero-COVID policy and restrictions on freedoms has spread to at least a dozen cities around the world in a show of solidarity with rare demonstrations of defiance in China over the weekend.
Dissidents and expatriate students held vigils and small-scale protests in cities around the world, including London, Paris, Tokyo and Sydney, according to a Reuters tally.
In most cases, dozens of people attended the protests, although a few attracted more than 100, according to the count.
The rallies are a rare example of Chinese people uniting in anger at home and abroad.
The mainland protests were sparked by a fire in China’s Xinjiang region last week that killed 10 people who were trapped in their apartments. Protesters said the lockdown measures were partly to blame, although officials denied it.
On Monday evening, dozens of protesters gathered in Hong Kong’s central business district, the scene of sometimes violent anti-government protests in 2019.
“I think it’s people’s normal right to express their opinion. I think they shouldn’t take away that kind of right,” said Lam, a 50-year-old Hong Kong citizen.
Dozens of students also gathered on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong to mourn those who died in Xinjiang, according to online video footage.
The White House National Security Council said in a statement that the United States believes it will be difficult for China to “control this virus through its zero COVID strategy”, adding that “everyone has the right to demonstrate peacefully, here in the United States and around the world, including in the PRC.
UN Human Rights Office spokesman Jeremy Laurence in an email on Monday urged “authorities to respond to protests in accordance with international human rights laws and standards.”
Laurence added that allowing broad debate in society could “help shape public policy, ensure that it is better understood and ultimately more effective.”
‘SUPPORT FROM ABROAD’
Since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago, authorities have cracked down hard on dissent, tightening controls on civil society, the media and the internet.
But a strict policy aimed at stamping out COVID with lockdowns and quarantines has become a lightning rod for frustrations. Although it has kept China’s death toll well below that of many other countries, it has cost long periods of confinement at home for millions and damage to the world’s second-largest economy.
Nonetheless, Chinese officials say it must be maintained to save lives, especially among the elderly, given their low vaccination rates.
Some foreign protesters said it was their turn to shoulder some of the burden their friends and family had endured.
“That’s what I should do. When I saw so many Chinese citizens and students take to the streets, I feel like they put up with so much more than us,” the student said. graduate Chiang Seeta, one of the organizers of a demonstration in Paris. Sunday which attracted about 200 people.
“We are now showing them support from abroad,” Chiang said.
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said in a regular briefing on Monday that China was not aware of any overseas protests calling for an end to the zero-COVID policy.
Asked about the home protests, the spokesperson said the question ‘did not reflect what really happened’ and said China believed the fight against COVID would be successful with the party leadership and the cooperation of the people.
It has been common in recent years for overseas Chinese students to rally in support of their government against its critics, but anti-government protests have been rare.
Outside the Pompidou Center in Paris, protesters brought flowers and lit candles for those killed in the Xinjiang fire.
Some blamed President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party and demanded their removal.
The defiance of Xi has become increasingly public after a dissident hung a banner on a Beijing bridge last month before a Communist Party congress, criticizing Xi for his commitment to power and the zero-COVID policy.
About 90 people gathered at Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s busiest stations, on Sunday, including a university student from Beijing who said any protest in China against COVID rules would inevitably focus blame on the Communist Party.
“At the heart of it all is the Chinese system,” said the student, who asked to be identified as just Emmanuel.
But some protesters were uncomfortable with more belligerent slogans.
An organizer of a protest scheduled for later Monday at Columbia University in New York, who asked to be identified as Shawn, said she would avoid sensitive issues such as the status of Taiwan and mass internment by the China of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
“We know this can alienate a lot of people,” said Shawn from the Chinese city of Fuzhou.
Reporting by Jessie Pang; additional reporting by Emma Farge and Susan Heavey; Editing by James Pomfret, Robert Birsel, Andrew Heavens and Bernadette Baum
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