A crowd of protesters gathered outside China’s Chicago consulate Tuesday night to protest the country’s staunch COVID-19 restrictions and crackdown on dissent.
Around 150 demonstrators rallied outside the consulate, holding out amid rain. The protesters — mostly young people — called for an end to China’s strong-arm coronavirus controls and criticized the country’s dominant Communist Party government.
“Fight for freedom, stand with China,” they chanted in English and Mandarin. “We want freedom. We want human rights. We want democracy.”
Protests against China’s “zero-COVID” strategy have spread inside the country in recent days since an apartment fire in the northwestern Xinjiang region killed 10 people. Demonstrators allege that stringent lockdowns leaving residents stuck in their homes led to the deaths and other tragedies.
Last week, a protest erupted in the central city of Zhengzhou as workers at the biggest factory for Apple’s iPhone demonstrated against low pay and unsafe working conditions.
The demonstrations that spread throughout the country are the most widespread since the Chinese army crushed the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement. As the Chinese government attempts to extinguish protests inside the country, people outside of China are now taking up the cause.
“As the citizens not in China, we can speak freely. But my friends who are in China, they’re still doing it, and some of them are arrested,” said a Chinese man studying in Chicago who declined to share his name, fearing government retribution.
Many of the protesters in Chicago Tuesday wore face masks. The masks functioned as symbols of the coronavirus and the silencing of Chinese protesters, and also functioned to hide the faces of the protesters gathered at the corner of West Erie and North Clark streets, the student said. Barbed wire and around a dozen security cameras, several focused on the protesters, hung from the consulate’s walls.
“In China, you can’t really protest so much,” he said. “Some of us do have family there, and some of us do want to go back.”
Cars passing between the demonstrators lining both sides of the sidewalk outside the consulate honked in apparent support.
One protester held a sign that said, “Urumqi Road,” a reference to the spot in Shanghai where protesters have recently gathered. Another protester tossed fake money over a makeshift memorial of writings and plastic tea candles placed in front of the consulate’s door to honor the dead.
Many at the Chicago protest held up blank, white pieces of standard “A4″ printer paper. Blank paper has been used by protesters in China to show that the government will retaliate against any form of dissent, said a protester who also declined to share his name.
“It’s people’s freedom to protest and express their demands,” said the man, who last left his home country in 2018 and now works for a technology company in Chicago. He never saw a protest growing up in China, he added.
One woman wore a full white hazmat suit as she stood just outside the consulate’s door. It was her duty as a Chinese person studying in America to protest, she said.
China’s initial COVID-19 response was effective, but less lethal variants make the government’s intense restrictions unduly burdensome and dangerous, she said, also declining to share her name.
She’s heard of police beating up and arresting truckloads of protesters in China. Her countrymen are known for being obedient, but they are protesting now, she said.
“Chinese people have had enough,” the student said. “We want the same thing that people here want. We want respect. We want dignity. We want freedom from the government.”
Lina Wu was one of only a small handful of protesters not wearing a mask. Born in America of Chinese immigrant parents, she was not worried about retaliation from the Chinese government for speaking out, she said. She still has family in China and was unable to visit her grandfather as he died, Wu said.
“It’s a lie to say these lockdowns were 2,000% amazing,” she said. “People were starving and dying.”
Each protester has their own unique concerns, Wu said. People aren’t asking for the government to abolish all COVID-19 precautions, but “to be treated like humans,” she said. And the protests aren’t just in response to COVID-19 restrictions, but also “no freedom of speech, Uyghur Muslims disappearing and being annihilated, no religious individuality,” she said.
Wu criticized Chinese celebrities for working with China’s ruling Community Party and failing to support protests, particularly singling out Chinese pop singer Jackson Wang.
“What I want to see is less fear. Obviously, it’s different in China compared to over here, but if we all do this together, it’s going to change,” Wu said.
Even as rain fell hard Tuesday evening, the protesters in Chicago continued to chant and hold up white paper. Across the street from the Chinese consulate, a group of demonstrators shielded flickering candles with umbrellas.
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A man holding a sign calling for freedom who wore a hard plastic mask that covered his entire face stood nearby. News of the protests has been stifled inside China and police in Shanghai have started to check the protester’s phones, the man said, declining to share his name.
“The people in China, they are suffering and they’re living in fear, so we should support them,” said the man, who was born in China and left during the pandemic.
People in his home country have been made less free in the last decade as the government grows stronger, he said.
“It’s not about COVID, it’s about control. It’s about total control.”
The Associated Press contributed.