Covid Protests in China Raise Hope for Solidarity Among Activists Abroad

Three years ago in Melbourne, Australia, Ronnie Li and other students from mainland China chanted in support of their government. They were trying to drown out a rally promoting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, the biggest challenge to Beijing’s authority in years.

Ms. Li, 23, has since changed her mind about that issue — and about much else.

In recent days, she said, she and other mainland Chinese students have demonstrated in Australia against Beijing’s policies, calling for more freedom in China, including an easing of Covid restrictions.

“Everyone has woken up,” she said. “Slowly. Change takes time.”

The recent protests in China have rippled well beyond the mainland, to cities around the world with large contingents of Chinese students — even Hong Kong, where the pro-democracy protests of 2019 were crushed and dissent of any kind is now dangerous.

Some young people like Ms. Li — members of what has been called China’s most nationalistic generation in decades, raised on a censored internet in which the ruling Communist Party can do no wrong — have experienced what they describe as a political awakening. It is unclear whether they represent more than a tiny minority, or how far beyond the issue of Covid restrictions their criticism of Beijing might go.

But some protesters who oppose the Chinese government for other reasons — like the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, the threat to Taiwan, and China’s persecution of Uyghurs in its Xinjiang region — have at least tentative hopes that the moment might be used to find common cause with them.

Members of the local Chinese community in Melbourne, Australia, holding placards at a vigil last week in support of protests in China against Covid policies.Credit…William West/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The struggle in the mainland is closely connected to our struggle,” said Sarah Lau, a Hong Kong resident in her early 20s.

Understand the Protests in China

  • The Toll of ‘Zero Covid’: The protests come as President Xi Jinping’s harsh pandemic policies have hurt businesses and strangled growth. The Daily looks at what the demonstrations could mean for Mr. Xi.
  • A Roar of Discontent: The protests have awoken a tradition of dissent that had seemed spent after 10 years under Mr. Xi. The effects may far outlast the street clashes.
  • Tracking Protesters: The authorities in China are using the country’s all-seeing surveillance apparatus to track, intimidate and detain those who marched in the protests.
  • Outmatching the Censors: Days after the initial protests, videos of chants and confrontations were visible on the Chinese internet. Experts say the sheer volume of clips likely overwhelmed China’s army of censors.

She was one of about two dozen young people, mostly from mainland China, who on Nov. 28 held a vigil in an alley in Hong Kong’s Central district. They held up blank sheets of paper — used as a symbol of defiance by demonstrators on the mainland — and arranged bouquets of flowers around a shrine for victims of the fire in Xinjiang that set off the protests.

Dozens of police officers and journalists watched them. The police recorded them with video cameras and took down their names. Afterward, cleaners stuffed the posters, flowers and candles into trash bags.

Several such quiet demonstrations have been held in Hong Kong in solidarity with the mainland protests. On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s security minister, Chris Tang, said they were driven by “familiar faces” from the 2019 protests.

He also issued a warning: “Being a mainland student does not mean you’re innocent.”

Ms. Li, the student in Australia, is one of a number of people from the mainland who have expressed contrition on Twitter about their past attitudes toward the Hong Kong protesters. She said she began feeling more sympathetic toward them last year, after spending more than a month in quarantine in China.

A vigil in the Central district of Hong Kong last week, commemorating victims of the fire in China’s Xinjiang region that set off the protests on the mainland. Credit…Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

“We can only say that the Chinese have been brainwashed too well,” she said. “It’s not the people’s fault. The Communist Party is to blame.”

Nathan Law, a prominent Hong Kong democracy activist who now lives in London, said he had gotten several notes of apology from such people in recent days. “Now we understand completely,” read one message, which he posted online. “Apologies for our ignorance then.”

In an interview, Mr. Law said it was unclear whether such bridge-building would do much to advance the protests in China. But he said it would help demonstrators facing the Chinese state to feel less isolated. “Being understood is quite important, because many people might be feeling very lonely and fearful while protesting,” he said.

In Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, more than 100 people gathered in front of National Taiwan University’s library on Wednesday to support the mainland protests. They arranged candles to form the letters “A4,” a reference to the blank sheets of paper used in the protests.

For an hour, students from Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland took turns speaking. Vivian Chen, 22, urged people in Taiwan to look beyond their political differences — even those as fundamental as whether the island should be independent from China — and stand behind the protesters on the mainland. “It may be very difficult to become partners fighting for the same causes, but our intentions to support are sincere,” Ms. Chen said.

People gathering at National Taiwan University in Taipei last week in support of protesters in China.Credit…Ann Wang/Reuters

On the mainland, the protests may have drawn more attention to the Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic minority who have been the target of a crackdown that detained vast numbers of them in internment camps. Many in China were aware of a Covid lockdown in Xinjiang that led to shortages of food and medicine. Then the deadly fire last month in the regional capital, Urumqi, set off the recent protests.

But activists and experts said that while the protesters knew about the fire and expressed solidarity with Uyghurs about the lockdown, that empathy did not necessarily extend to the group’s broader plight.

“Most people in China don’t really understand the camp system,” said Darren Byler, an anthropologist who studies the minority populations in northwestern China and the Uyghur diaspora. “They don’t see Xinjiang as the Uyghur homeland. They see Xinjiang as a part of China, another province far away.”

But some Uyghurs overseas who attended recent protests saw some hope for changing minds.

A Uyghur student in Vancouver — who asked to remain anonymous, fearing for the safety of her relatives in Xinjiang — said that after days of watching footage of the fire, she decided to commemorate the victims. She shared a photo of a candle, a time and a location on social media, and was surprised when about 100 people showed up.

The rally was held almost entirely in Mandarin. The student played a recording of a Uyghur ballad, yelled slogans calling for an end to internment camps and even joined in the chorus of China’s national anthem, feeling that one line — “Stand up, ye who refuse to be enslaved!” — spoke to the moment.

She does not usually bring up the camps, a subject which her friends who belong to China’s Han ethnic majority have been skeptical about. But the gathering left her with the impression that at least some of the rally attendees might be starting to see the issue differently.

Ben Yan, 29, who said he belonged to another ethnic minority group in China, said he had previously doubted reports of internment camps in Xinjiang. But the experience of living through lockdown in Shanghai, which he called “hell on earth,” led him to believe that the authorities were capable of it.

“I now have every reason to believe that Uyghurs have suffered unimaginably,” said Mr. Yan, who left China this fall and is currently in Japan, where he left flowers and blank paper at the Chinese consulate in Nagoya as a form of protest. “But the general Han people still don’t understand or believe what had happened to them. I think that’s a problem.”

Salih Hudayar, center, a Uyghur American activist, spoke at a rally in Washington last week in support of Uyghurs in China.Credit…Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

An online group that describes itself as run by overseas Chinese students and young people — called “Not Your Little Pink,” referring to a dismissive term for brash young nationalists who belligerently defend China online — said it was important for the demonstrations to address the persecution of Uyghurs.

In one widely shared post, the group said that some protest chants, such as “We are all Xinjiang people” and “I am also a victim of the fire,” overlooked the targeted nature of Uyghur persecution. It argued that the closing of internment camps should be among the movement’s demands.

Rayhan Asat, a United States-based Uyghur human rights lawyer, said in an email that the protests “present a real but limited opportunity to open the eyes of the Han to what we’ve been going through.” She said she had spoken to Chinese students who were outraged by the Urumqi fire but continued to defend the camp system in Xinjiang.

“Imagine if they protested against all forms of illegal detention and denounced the concentration camps. We’d see results,” she said. “After this tragedy, Chinese people cannot pretend they don’t know.”

Joy Dong contributed reporting in Hong Kong.

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