China’s protests over lockdowns spread to campuses and communities abroad

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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.

Small-scale vigils and protests have been held in cities in Europe, Asia and North America, including London, Paris, Tokyo and Sydney. The gatherings are a rare instance of Chinese at home and abroad uniting in anger.

The protests on the mainland were triggered by a deadly fire in China’s Xinjiang region last week that killed 10 people who became trapped in their apartments, in a disaster blamed in part on lockdown measures.

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 the strict policy aimed at stamping out COVID with lockdowns and quarantine has become a lightning rod for frustrations.

The policy has kept China’s death much lower than many other countries but it has come at a cost of long spells of confinement at home for many 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.

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.

State media and government spokespeople have not made any official comment on the protests in China.

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.