By Jessie Pang
HONG KONG (Reuters) -Protests against China’s strict zero-COVID policy and restrictions on freedoms have spread to at least a dozen cities around the world in a show of solidarity with rare displays of defiance in China over the weekend.
Expatriate dissidents and students staged small-scale 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 attended the protests, though a few drew more than 100, the tally showed.
The gatherings are a rare instance of Chinese people uniting in anger at home and abroad.
The protests on the mainland were triggered by a fire in China’s Xinjiang region last week that killed 10 people who were trapped in their apartments. Protesters said lockdown measures were partly to blame, though officials denied that.
On Monday evening, dozens of protesters gathered in Hong Kong’s Central business district, the scene of sometimes-violent anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
“I think this is the normal right of people expressing their opinion. I think they should not suppress this kind of right,” said Lam, a 50-year-old Hong Kong citizen.
Dozens of students also gathered at the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong to mourn those who died in Xinjiang, according to video footage online.
The White House national security council said in a statement the U.S. believed it would be difficult for China to “control this virus through their zero COVID strategy,” adding, that “everyone has the right to peacefully protest, here in the United States and around the world. This includes in the PRC.”
U.N. Human Rights Office spokesperson Jeremy Laurence, in an email on Monday, urged “the authorities to respond to protests in line with international human rights laws and standards.”
Laurence added that allowing broad debate across society could “help shape public policies, ensure they are better understood and are ultimately more effective.”
‘SUPPORT FROM ABROAD’
Since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago, authorities have clamped 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 quarantine has become a lightning rod for frustrations. While it has kept China’s death toll much lower than those of many other countries, it has come at a cost of long spells of confinement at home for millions and damage to the world’s second-biggest economy.
Nevertheless, Chinese officials say it must be maintained to save lives, especially among the elderly, given their low vaccination rates.
Some overseas protesters said it was their turn to take on some of the burden their friends and family had been enduring.
“It’s what I should do. When I saw so many Chinese citizens and students take to the streets, my feeling is they have shouldered so much more than we have,” said graduate student Chiang Seeta, one of the organisers of a demonstration in Paris on Sunday that drew about 200 people.
“We’re now showing support for them from abroad,” Chiang said.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson told a regular briefing on Monday that China was not aware of any protests abroad calling for an end to the zero-COVID policy.
Asked about the protests at home, the spokesperson said the question did not “reflect what actually happened” and said China believed the fight against COVID would be successful with the leadership of the party 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 Centre in Paris, some 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 from office.
Defiance towards Xi has become increasingly public after a dissident hung a banner on a Beijing bridge last month ahead of a Communist Party Congress, criticising Xi for clinging to power and the zero-COVID policy.
About 90 people gathered at Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s busiest train stations, on Sunday, among them a university student from Beijing who said any protests in China against COVID rules would inevitably focus blame on the Communist Party.
“At the core of it is China’s system,” said the student, who asked to be identified as just Emmanuel.
But some protesters were uncomfortable with more belligerent slogans.
An organiser of a protest planned for later on Monday at Columbia University in New York, who asked to be identified as Shawn, said she would steer clear of sensitive issues such as Taiwan’s status and China’s mass internment of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
“We know that may 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)