Jack*, a Hongkonger, used to have a grim view of mainland Chinese people, but the protests over anti-Covid restrictions that exploded across China last weekend changed his view.
“Before, I thought they were mostly the arrogant and nationalistic people who just cared only about safeguarding ‘one China’ and the [Communist] party, and who boasted about the superiority of China,” said the 35-year-old IT professional, who did not want to give his real name for fear of repercussions from Beijing.
“But at these protests, it is clear that they were not just dissatisfied with Covid policies, but the regime and the whole political system,” he said. “When I saw the countless ‘tank men’ who bravely stood in front of police vehicles and called for democracy and freedom, that really touched me.”
Jack, who participated in the 2019 anti-government protests in Hong Kong and has since moved to the UK, added: “Now I see we have a common language with them. Their courage earned my respect and I feel there is hope.”
After a deadly fire in the far west Xinjiang region widely blamed on lockdowns, the emotions of the people who have been under stringent Covid restrictions for almost three years boiled over. But before the protests that started on Friday and spread like wildfire over the weekend, few expected mainland Chinese citizens – who have lived under the Communist party for seven decades and experienced the brutal crackdown of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations – would take to the streets again.
Many Hongkongers say the protests gave them a feeling of deja vu – the slogans heard on the streets of Shanghai, Beijing and other cities echoed the political demands in Hong Kong during the wave of anti-government protests from 2019-2020. The Chinese protesters have gone beyond calling for an end to lockdowns; students on university campuses have demanded democracy and rule of law and people on the streets chanted for the removal of the Communist party and its leader, Xi Jinping. Many held up blank sheets of white A4 paper, first used in the Hong Kong protests in 2020 to avoid the slogans banned under the city’s national security law, which was imposed after massive and sometimes violent protests the previous year.
Jack said he could identify with the mainland Chinese, as he also felt the weight of an increasingly totalitarian rule that removed many civil freedoms under the national security law as well as under the Covid restrictions in the territory, which followed China’s “dynamic zero-Covid” policy.
Protests in Hong Kong, which once prided itself on its robust civil freedoms, have by and large disappeared under the new law and scores of arrests. But the wave of Chinese protests have prompted a number of demonstrators to risk breaching laws and Covid regulations to express their solidarity.
On Monday, dozens of people gathered in the prestigious business district of Central. This time, the demonstrators were echoing their Chinese counterparts in carrying blank sheets of paper. Some held flowers and candles as police registered their identities. Another 100 staged a rally at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, holding up blank sheets while chanting in Mandarin Chinese the slogans from a banner held by a lone protester at Sitong Bridge in Beijing in October: “We want reform, not a cultural revolution. We want to be citizens, not slaves.” At the separate University of Hong Kong, several mainland students also staged a silent protest and the university called the police who took down the protesters’ details.
Although many Hongkongers sympathise with the mainland protesters, they are as pessimistic about the outcome following the crackdown that greeted their own demonstrations, which saw protesters, pro-democracy politicians and writers arrested and independent media outlets and non-governmental organisations closed down. They expect the mainland protests to lead to mass arrests.
“This feels so much like Hong Kong in 2019,” said construction worker Freeman Yim. “The regime is so powerful – they have everything on their side: technology, money, army, law and power.
“People are pelting eggs against the wall. I feel so sad. I fear many innocent people and their families will suffer,” he said. “In Hong Kong, three years on, no one dares talk about these [democratic values] any more. You leave if you can, and if you can’t, you’re stuffed.”