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China protests unleash wave of student activism in UK

Hundreds of demonstrators gather outside the Chinese Embassy in London on Nov 27 - Alexander Mak/NurPhoto/Shutterstock
Hundreds of demonstrators gather outside the Chinese Embassy in London on Nov 27 - Alexander Mak/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Chinese students across the UK have organised numerous small-scale forms of activism in solidarity with protests in China in the past week, after unprecedented unrest in their home country led some to feel able to openly criticise their government for the first time.

At the London School of Economics on Friday, a small group of mask-wearing people could be seen setting up a temporary “democracy wall” in the campus square where people could freely write their opinions and feelings about the movement.

Others put flowers and candles on the ground beneath to mourn for the 10 people who died in a fire in an apartment block in Urumqi last week, allegedly due in part to Covid restrictions on their building.

The deaths sparked off massive protests, first in Xinjiang region and then in major cities across the country.

As Chinese people took to the streets to express their discontent with three years of draconian Zero Covid policies, many for the first time, some Chinese students in the UK decided to do the same.

Hundreds gathered outside London’s Chinese Embassy last weekend, calling for an end to coronavirus restrictions and even urging Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, to step down. It was a significant step from a community that usually tries to stay out of politics due to the risks of repercussions for their families back home.

Among those protesting for the first time was Stephanie, a master’s student at a British university whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

She had been depressed by the lack of freedom in China. “I thought I have no more feelings for the country after repeated disappointments. However when this happened, I found I still care.”

She wore her hat and a mask, and tried her best to hide in the crowd to stop herself from being identified.

Stephanie said she was shocked by the anti-Xi chants, “but then I thought, only if the regime felt threatened by its people, then can some real changes become possible”.

People protest outside London’s Chinese Embassy - ALEXANDER MAK
People protest outside London’s Chinese Embassy - ALEXANDER MAK

When she told her family, including her mother who works in a Covid control unit, they simply said: “Thank you for speaking up on our behalf.”

Since then there have also been plenty of quieter acts of resistance, with like-minded students finding each other via Telegram channels and Instagram pages and encouraging one another to keep going even as the protests in China have died down.

Some got together one night in London to spray paint graffiti slogans such as “the people need freedom” and “we create our own future”.

Blank sheets of white paper have also been posted on campuses across the country in support of the movement, which some have called the “A4 Revolution”.

Stephanie believes it has been a watershed moment for her generation. “I can see netizens’ attitude towards issues such as police brutality has changed,” she said. “There is intrinsic meaning for what we did — standing up for ourselves.”