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By Lucy Xia, RNZ News journalist

More than 200 people from Aotearoa New Zealand’s Chinese community gathered for a vigil at Auckland’s Aotea Square last night to mourn the lives lost under China’s stringent covid-19 lockdowns and to call for an end to the country’s “Zero Covid” policy.

The unprecedented display of defiance by a crowd mainly made up of Chinese Kiwis from the mainland came after a lockdown building fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, last week that killed 10 people.

The Urumqi fire has sparked nationwide protests across China and among overseas Chinese, with vigils and protests building up in major cities including New York, Melbourne, Sydney, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

More than 100 people at the event held up blank pieces of A4 paper as a symbol of defiance against China’s censorship of dissent, and chanted in Mandarin: “We don’t want leaders, we want votes — we don’t want dictatorship, we want citizens”.

“Without freedom, I’d rather die.

“Xi Jin Ping, step down, CCP step down.”

A similar vigil for the Urumqi fire victims was also held in Wellington last night.

Step up after seeing suffering
In an emotional speech, one of the organisers of the Auckland vigil said despite having no previous experience participating in social movements, she had decided to step up after seeing the recent tragedies of Chinese people suffering under the lockdowns.

“There were a series of suicides in Hohhot where I come from, I felt at that time that I can no longer say everything is fine — we can say that for New Zealand, but my family and friends are in China, so I can no longer be silent,” she said.

Members of the Uyghur Muslim community from Xinjiang — where the Urumqi fire happened — also attended, showing solidarity and protesting against human rights violations against Uyghurs.

Chinese protesters in Aotea Square hold white A4 paper as a symbol of defiance against censorship by the Chinese government
Chinese protesters in Auckland’s Aotea Square hold white A4 paper as a symbol of defiance against censorship by the Chinese government. Image: Lucy Xia/RNZ

The protesters also called for the release of protesters arrested in China.

The organiser paid tribute to a list of Chinese citizens who had stood up against authority during the pandemic, including jailed citizen journalist Zhang Zhan and the lone protester on Beijing’s Sitong Bridge who displayed banners calling for people to strike and for the removal of Xi Jinping.

Like her, many at the gathering were first-time protesters emboldened by the recent protests in China.

Another protester said he was also inspired by the man on Sitong Bridge.

‘He gave us courage’
“He gave us a lot of courage. He was a person at the bottom of society, who did what he knew was forbidden, he sacrificed himself to awaken the Chinese people’s desire for a democratic society,” he said.

“I feel like he’s planted a fire in all our hearts, he’s like the Prometheus of our times.”

An international student who had just graduated from high school said she wanted to contribute to ending China’s lockdowns.

“If the protests could work and make all the cities stop the lockdown, I was so happy to come to come here today, hear everyone share their stories and using the A4 paper to show our anger.”

Another said he hoped the protests in China and abroad instilled a sense of what it meant to be a responsible citizen for Chinese people.

“If people want to live with dignity in a fair society, there needs to be a civil society,” he said.

‘Softer’ solidarity
Meanwhile, some at the gathering chose a softer way of showing solidarity with the victims of the Urumqi fire.

Chinese protesters in Aotea Square
Chrysanthemums were laid and candles were lit in solidarity with the victims of the Urumqi fire. Image: Lucy Xia/RNZ

Chrysanthemums were laid and candles were lit, and a school aged child accompanied by his parents played “Do you hear the people sing” on his flute.

One attendee told RNZ he was glad that the people who gathered could find something in common regardless of where they were on the political spectrum.

“Some people want to see a revolution in China, others just want something small like for their residential area to come out of lockdown earlier, so that people can freely buy groceries,” he said.

“But people can easily find a common denominator, and that’s hoping things will move forward a little bit, and let friends and family living in China be safer and freer.”

At least two major cities in China — Guangzhou and Chongqing — have eased covid-19 restrictions following a clash between protesters and police in Guangzhou this week.

The writing reads: 'I am the person who died in the bus that flipped, I am the sick person denied treatment, I am the person who walked a hundred miles, I am the person who jumped from a building out of desperation, I am the person trapped in the building fire, if these people are not me, then the next victim will be me.'
This message in Mandarin reads: “I am the person who died in the bus that flipped, I am the sick person denied treatment, I am the person who walked a hundred miles, I am the person who jumped from a building out of desperation, I am the person trapped in the building fire. If these people are not me, then the next victim will be me.” Image: Lucy Xia/RNZ

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ. 

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