Chinese authorities moved quickly to stamp out large protests over its zero-COVID policies that flared in major Chinese cities last weekend. But protests have continued outside of the mainland, with shows of solidarity popping up across the world, largely driven by members of the Chinese diaspora.
Fellow demonstrators have gathered at universities, consulates, government buildings, and other landmarks on several continents. These shows of support have taken place in major cities from Tokyo to Melbourne and New York to Taipei. In Europe alone, demonstrations occurred in London, Paris, Rome, Lisbon, Berlin, and Budapest. At these, people have shouted some of the same slogans heard on the streets of Shanghai and Beijing.
But even though Chinese President Xi Jinping’s power to quash dissent isn’t as strong outside China’s borders, it remains to be seen if these diasporic protests will lose steam as they’ve been fueled by the endurance of the protesters on the mainland.
Large-scale protests in China are rare, owing to Beijing’s security apparatus and censorship system. Protests by the Chinese diaspora aren’t common either–perhaps due to fears of Beijing’s reach overseas. A 2020 report by Human Rights Watch, for example, alleged that the Chinese government surveils Chinese students in Australia, documenting how some students at Australian universities modified their behavior and self-censored to avoid being reported to authorities back home by fellow classmates.
Still, on Monday, about 200 people, most of them Chinese, gathered in front of the State Library in Melbourne, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Some laid flowers, and many held up sheets of blank white paper—a burgeoning symbol of protest. Others used the opportunity to speak out against other human rights issues, like Beijing’s treatment of Uighur people and its crackdown in Hong Kong. Pictures circulating on social media showed a separate group gathering to light candles for the victims of the fire that catalyzed the furor in China last weekend at Sydney’s Town Hall.
“I think they protest partly for the same reasons why people in China protest, which is that they are suffering from the consequences of the Zero-COVID restrictions, both in terms of physical human contact as well as economic disruptions,” says Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “They are able to compare the situation in China with where they live, usually in Western democracies, and see that the Xi approach is unnecessarily restrictive and harmful to people.”
The same day, hundreds gathered at U.S. universities, including Harvard and Columbia, and near Chinese consulates in Chicago and New York, chanting anti-government slogans, according to the Associated Press. Many wore masks to hide their faces, reportedly fearful that protesting might put their families in China at risk. In Chicago, people, echoing the calls of protesters in China, chanted, “We don’t want PCR tests, we want food!” and “We don’t want a dictator, we want votes!” according to the AP.
On Sunday, a vigil was held in Taipei to mourn the victims of the fire. It morphed into a protest as people gathered with candles reportedly began to chant anti-Chinese government slogans. Reuters also recorded vigils and protests in London and Paris. In China’s special administrative region of Hong Kong, more than two dozen demonstrators gathered in the central district during the evening rush hour on Monday holding white sheets of paper in front of their faces. And in Tokyo, hundreds of protesters, many of them Chinese, gathered near Shinjuku Station on Wednesday, according to local media.
Another rally is scheduled at New York’s Washington Square Park on Sunday. But, if protests within China subside, it’s unclear how long these overseas demonstrations will go on. Tsang says Xi will do whatever it takes to stop the mainland protests—and he’s already started. Barricades were erected in Shanghai after the weekend’s protest. Online censors went into overdrive to wipe social media of posts and accounts providing news about the protests, and police have reportedly stopped pedestrians in some cities to search their phones. This week, a heavy police presence in Beijing and other key cities has deterred a repeat of the weekend’s events.
The protests abroad, “can and probably will continue for a bit longer outside of China, as the repressive and intimidation machinery is less effective outside of China,” says Tsang. But, he adds: “If the protests in China are suppressed, those supportive ones outside will peter out,” too.
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