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Pro-democracy movement unites Chinese Australians as community speaks out against zero-COVID policy

November 30, 2022

A demonstration in Melbourne brought together the Chinese Australian community in a way many protesters said they had never experienced.(ABC News: Annika Burgess )

As about 200 Chinese protesters stood chanting on the steps of Melbourne's State Library, two young children ran in front of the crowd and laid down roses.

Accompanied by their mother and father, Aidi Ali, the whole family was wearing traditional Uyghur dress.

"I was touched, really," Mr Ali told the ABC.

"I didn't know that people could stand up for us."

This week, hundreds of protesters from Australia's Chinese community turned out in solidarity with those holding demonstrations across China.

The majority of them were Han Chinese people — the largest ethnic group in mainland China.

Melbourne protesters said they wanted people demonstrating in China to know they were not alone.

The extremely rare show of civil disobedience in the world's most high-tech surveillance state was sparked by anger over President Xi Jinping's COVID-zero restrictions.

But against the backdrop of COVID policy discontent, many protesters — particularly in Australia — have been using the demonstrations to speak out against the Chinese government's human rights abuses.

"We stand with Uyghurs! We stand with Tibetans! We stand with Hongkongers! We stand with Taiwanese!" the Melbourne protesters chanted.

"Step down Xi Jinping!"

Mr Xi secured a historic third term as the head of the CCP last month, and the 69-year-old is expected to try to stay in power for life.

About 200 people held a demonstration at the State Library in Melbourne. (ABC News: Annika Burgess)

The protests that broke out across China over the weekend were prompted by the deaths of at least 10 people in an apartment building fire in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang province, that has been blamed on COVID restrictions.

The city, which is home to 10 million mainly Muslim Uyghurs, has been under strict lockdowns for more than 100 days.

Most of the victims of the fire were believed to be Uyghur families, community representatives told the ABC.

They also claim there were likely more deaths than what officials have reported.

'We've had this treatment for 70 years'

Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the Uyghur ethnic minority group, including forced labour in internment camps. China strongly rejects such claims.

Mr Ali said the government was responsible for creating a large divide between Uyghurs and Han people.

"I'm not saying everyone, but most of the [Uyghur] people, they don't like Han Chinese," Mr Ali said.

While some Uyghur advocates have voiced anger over Han Chinese people using the fire as a platform to stage protests, Mr Ali said he was not opposed to it.

"At least they came forward, and I was also very moved by it," the 34-year-old said.

Uyghur families are believed to be the majority of the victims killed in the building fire in Xinjiang. (AP)

But he is disappointed it took the Urumqi tragedy to gain support for his community and hopes it will not be short-lived.

"I just hope in the future they will still remember the difficult past of our Uyghurs," he said.

"Because of this pandemic, you've been experiencing this awful treatment from the government for the last three years.

"But we've had this treatment for 70 years."

Mr Ali, who has lived in Australia for 16 years, said he had a good relationship with the local Han community, but its members rarely talked about politics.

"I'm really happy that even the Han Chinese people realise what's going on and they realise the problem," he said.

Vigils were held in Sydney and Melbourne for the people who died in the apartment fire in Urumqi.(ABC News: Joyce Cheng)

Solidarity attracts first-time protesters

Publicly voicing political opinions is rare even for Chinese Australians, especially those who still have family in China.

But in Sydney and Melbourne this week, protesters didn't hold back in making their message clear.

"They have been telling lies for years," a woman yelled into the microphone at a protest at Melbourne's State Library.

"We have been waiting and tolerating for so many years."

Her voice was shaky but defiant.

"Did we have to wait until family members were dead? No more waiting!"

People in the crowd held signs calling Mr Xi a "murderer" and "dictator".

"It's my duty. Free China!" another read.

Sydney protesters were bold, dressing up as Winnie the Pooh, which has become a way for Chinese people to mock Xi Jinping. (ABC News: Dong Xing)

Mr Bin, who asked that his real name not be used, participated in the Melbourne gatherings.

He said many people were taking part in a protest for the first time.

"In the beginning, everyone stood quietly, but later they began to shout, 'Communist Party, step down,' and 'Xi Jinping, step down,'" he said.

"Everyone is still afraid of being retaliated against by the government so most of them wear masks."

Melbourne protester Claire, who asked to only use her first name, said she was compelled to attend after seeing the bravery of people in China, who risked arrest and other repercussions by taking to the streets.

"It's really fascinating. I never thought people in Beijing or Shanghai would go on the streets and say things like, 'Stand down Xi Jinping,'" she told the ABC.

"They are being so brave."

The 29-year-old has been living in Australia for 10 years, but says: "We are all sharing the same goals."

"I hope people in China will see that people are supporting them. They are not fighting by themselves," she said.

Many protesters said they had never experienced the Chinese community coming together in such a way. (ABC News: Joyce Cheng)

Tim, a 21-year-old student, was initially worried, but said seeing the number of people who turned out in Melbourne gave him "strength".

He had never witnessed or taken part in a protest in person, and was glad for the opportunity to "really get the feeling".

"My friends and family are really struggling. It makes me really angry about everything," he said.

"Last night I was reading the news and it made me feel quite aggressive. Then I saw this event and I had to come."

Hongkongers support 'courageous protesters'

Nan Feng admits he didn't initially agree with Hong Kong's 2019 pro-democracy protests.

But the Sydney University student from China's northern province of Liaoning says now "I fully understand".

"Because I wasn't on the boat, I didn't have anything to do with them," he told the ABC.

"But we all have a common enemy: President Xi and the Communist Party."

After witnessing the scale of control under COVID-zero policies, Nan Feng has a new view on Xi Jinping. (ABC News: Dong Xing)

Jane Poon, a Hongkonger in Australia, said the protests in China were reminiscent of the city's umbrella movement in 2014, as well as protests in 2019 againstthe controversial law to allow extradition to mainland China.

"People in China are finally getting alerted … Their demands now are very similar to our demands, which are democracy and freedom," she said.

"We're glad they're finally taking action. We're dealing with the same people (the CCP).

"They were scared before, but not now."

The 2019 mass protests in Hong Kong sparked a split between mainland Chinese and Hongkongers, many of whom expressed disappointment with people's support for Beijing.

But Australia-Hong Kong associations from around the country released a joint statement supporting China's "courageous protesters".

"Protests that started as expressions of dissatisfaction over China's COVID policies have quickly escalated into calls for democracy, rule of law and human rights," the statement said.

"As Hong Kongers, our issues have always been with the authoritarian misrule of the Chinese Communist Party, and not the people of China generally.

"We therefore welcome those in China who now join us in resisting the tyranny of despotic rule, and stand in solidarity with them."

Umbrellas, used to protect against pepper spray, became a symbol associated with Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. (AP: Kin Cheung)

Some protesters among the Chinese-Australian community said they were concerned demonstrations could lead to even tighter controls.

They also fear there may be violent crackdowns after what played out in Hong Kong.

"I am not optimistic about the situation because the CCP is quite skilled and brutal in suppression," Mr Bin said.

"They may be easing a bit on COVID lockdown, but they're absolutely going to do whatever it takes to keep the situation under control. They do everything at all costs."

International student Tim agreed.

"It's scary," he said.

"It may turn into a terrible situation but we just have to give it a try."


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