Chinese citizens living abroad have been attending rallies across the U.S. this week in support of myriad protests that have been taking place throughout China. They are the first mass demonstrations in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests for political freedom in Beijing.
The current demonstrators are seeking freedom from China’s “zero-COVID” policy.
In the U.S. cities of Los Angeles, Washington and New York, Chinese students and residents at rallies have been critical of the Chinese government and the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, chanting in Mandarin “the Chinese Communist Party, step down” and “Xi Jinping, step down.”
“People are dying in China,” said Han Wang, a Chinese student who organized a candlelight vigil in Los Angeles on Nov. 29.
People in the U.S. and China have been protesting China’s strict zero-COVID policy, which has prompted sporadic and lengthy lockdowns through the country, making it difficult to get food for some residents.
“Way more people are dying because of this. They're starving to death,” said a Chinese citizen currently living in Los Angeles who asked to be identified as “Max.”
She and many other people attending demonstrations in the U.S. covered themselves from head to toe, with dark sunglasses and masks, because they fear their protests in the U.S. will cause the Chinese government to retaliate against their families in China.
“A lot of the workers are all sealed up at home and can’t go out and can’t pay their mortgages. I think the continued lockdowns are not scientific. It’s not right,” said Liu Xiaomei, a Chinese citizen living in New York and using an alias.
The simmering discontent exploded throughout China after a deadly apartment fire on November 24 in the city of Urumqi, in northwest China. The region is home to China’s Uyghur Muslims.
One Urumqi resident told VOA that because of the zero-COVID policy, the doors to the fire escape were chained from the outside, trapping people inside the burning building. A fire department official said the residents were not aware of an alternate fire escape. Local hospital employees told a U.S.-based Uyghur news outlet that 44 people died in the fire, but the government puts the official death toll at 10.
"Indeed, on social media there are some forces with ulterior motives relating the fire with the local response to COVID-19. The Urumqi city government has already held a news conference to clarify what actually happened, and refuted the disinformation and smears," Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Monday.
The vigil in Los Angeles was not only to commemorate the people who died in the fire, according to a student who wanted to be identified as “Kiki.”
“These 44 fellow citizens also represent every single person in China — could be you, could be me -- we are actually inside the building, the big fire together. If we don’t speak out today, and don’t act, then no one in the world will hear. All the voices will be buried,” she said.
From Washington, Hamid Kerim has been following the protests in China and the rallies in the U.S. Originally from China, Kerim is Uyghur and owns two restaurants around the U.S. capital city. He said the protests are long overdue, given China’s repressive policy against Uyghurs, which he described as genocide and which China denies.
“The Urumqi fire ignited everyone’s heart. It made them, the people, stand up. I respect and support the protesters, but in my opinion it’s a little late. But it’s still not too late.”
Some Uyghurs are encouraged the Chinese diaspora is recognizing what’s happening to their community in China.
“I hope the Chinese [living] around the world can stand together with the Uyghurs, and Uyghurs can also stand together with the Chinese. We can jointly realize our desire of having a peaceful and free country. That’s my hope,” Kerim said.
China has been rejecting criticism of its actions in the Xinjiang region, where many Uyghurs live. Beijing has said it is fighting against terrorism and has helped bring social stability and prosperity to the area.
“China is a country governed by the rule of law, and the various legal rights and freedoms enjoyed by Chinese citizens are fully guaranteed in accordance with the law. At the same time, any rights and freedoms must be exercised within the framework of the law," Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said on Tuesday, regarding the protests against COVID-19 lockdowns in China that erupted after the fire.
For some Chinese living in the U.S., the protests of China’s COVID control measures are transforming into a fight for additional freedoms.
“We are here to support them [people in China] to fight for freedom and democracy,” Chinese student Wang said. “The Chinese people, they don't have the freedom to express themselves. They don't have the freedom of publication. They don't have the freedom of speech. Right now, they even lost their freedom to go out of their own house, so it's so brutal.”
“No lockdown but freedom, no lies but dignity. We are tired of the party's lies. I love China. I love my people, which is why I'm here. I, we don't want the Cultural Revolution again. We want reform. We don't want a dictator. We want to vote for our leaders,” Max said. “He [Xi] is a fascist leader. He is not a communist leader, he is a fascist leader and we need help.”
Even with protests in China and demonstrations in the U.S., a Los Angeles student who requested to be called “Kenneth” expressed doubt that change would happen.
“I think honestly it will do very little to stop China. China is way too powerful. And although we can fight here, although we could let our voice be spoken, we could do whatever we can, but at the end of the day, it's a losing battle. But that does not mean that we should give up,” said Kenneth, who is a Hui Muslim from China.
He said China has been closing mosques and Islamic schools, and his community’s ability to practice their religion is being slowly wiped away.
Many overseas Chinese attending the rallies said they will continue to speak out for their friends and loved ones in China in hopes of a better life for them and the next generation.
Genia Dulot in Los Angeles and VOA Mandarin Service video journalists, Fang Bing and Jiu Dao in New York and Wang Ping in Washington, contributed to this report.