HONG KONG, Nov 28 (Reuters) – Protests against China’s strict zero-COVID policy and restrictions on freedoms have spread to at least a dozen cities around the world over the weekend in a show of solidarity with rare defiance in China.
Dissidents and students living abroad held small vigils and protests in cities around the world, including London, Paris, Tokyo and Sydney, according to a Reuters tally.
In most cases, dozens of people took part in the protests, although some attracted more than 100, tally showed.
The gatherings are a rare example of Chinese at home and abroad uniting in anger.
The mainland protests were sparked by a fire in China’s Xinjiang region last week that killed ten people locked in their homes. Protesters said lockdown measures were partly to blame, although officials denied it.
On Monday night, dozens of protesters gathered in Hong Kong’s central business district, the scene of sometimes violent anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
“I think that’s the normal right of people to express their opinions. I think they shouldn’t suppress that kind of right,” said Lam, a 50-year-old Hong Kong resident.
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 the US believes it is difficult for China to “control this virus through its zero-COVID strategy,” adding that “everyone has the right here in the United States and around the world to protest peacefully. This also includes the PRC.”
UN Human Rights Office spokesman Jeremy Laurence emailed Monday “urging authorities to respond to protests in accordance with international human rights law and standards.”
Laurence added that broad debate in society “could help shape public policy, ensure it is better understood and ultimately more effective”.
‘SUPPORT FROM ABROAD’
Since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago, the authorities have cracked down on dissent and tightened controls on civil society, the media and the internet.
But tough policies aimed at eradicating COVID with lockdowns and quarantines have become a lightning rod for frustration. Although China’s death toll was much lower than many other countries, it has long confined millions of people at home and wreaked havoc on the world’s second largest economy.
Still, Chinese officials say it must be maintained given their low vaccination rates to save lives, particularly among the elderly.
Some foreign protesters said it was their turn to shoulder some of the burden their friends and family had to endure.
“I should do that. When I saw so many Chinese citizens and students taking to the streets, I feel like they shouldered so much more than we did,” said PhD student Chiang Seeta, one of the organizers of a demonstration in Paris on Sunday that was about attracted 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 is not aware of any protests abroad calling for an end to the zero-COVID policy.
Asked about the protests at home, the spokesman said the question does not “reflect what actually happened,” and said China believes the fight against COVID would be successful with the Party’s leadership and the people’s cooperation.
In recent years, it has been common for foreign Chinese students to demonstrate in support of their government against their critics, but anti-government protests have been rare.
Outside the Center Pompidou in Paris, some protesters brought flowers and lit candles for the victims of the Xinjiang fire.
Some blamed President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party and called for their impeachment.
Opposition to Xi has become increasingly public after a dissident hung a banner on a bridge in Beijing ahead of a Communist Party congress last month, criticizing Xi for clinging to power and the zero-COVID policy.
About 90 people gathered in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s busiest train stations, on Sunday, including a university student from Beijing who said any protests in China against COVID rules would inevitably pin the blame on the Communist Party.
“The core of this is China’s system,” said the student, who asked to be identified only as Emmanuel.
But some protesters were uncomfortable with more bellicose slogans.
An organizer of a protest planned for later Monday at Columbia University in New York asking to be identified as Shawn said she will stay away from sensitive issues such as Taiwan’s status and China’s mass detention of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
“We know that could 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; Edited by James Pomfret, Robert Birsel, Andrew Heavens and Bernadette Baum
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