Overseas Chinese step up protests as calls mount for change

By Anna Mehler Paperny and Jessie Pang

TORONTO/HONG KONG (Reuters) - From Sydney to Toronto, mainland Chinese have stepped up protests this week, with demands to end the world's most stringent COVID-19 restrictions evolving into calls to "free China" and for President Xi Jinping to step down.

Overseas-based Chinese and their supporters rallied in Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York and Toronto, with more protests planned in coming days.

"Free China. Xi Jinping step down," about 30 people shouted in Toronto on Tuesday.

At Harvard University in Massachusetts, dozens chanted: "No more lies" and "no more censorship."

China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Outside the Chinese consulate in New York, hundreds gathered, some waving blank white placards, which have become a protest symbol in China.

Many shouted slogans in Mandarin, criticising China's human rights record and the impact of its zero-COVID policy, which has taken a heavy toll on the economy and people's freedoms.

Some were reluctant to give their names for fear relatives in China could face harassment by authorities.

The anger at home and abroad swelled after authorities reported 10 people had been killed in a fire in the Xinjiang region that many people online blamed on stringent COVID rules, which they said trapped residents inside a building.

Authorities denied that.

Spot lockdowns and frequent virus tests for hundreds of millions have stirred anger among Chinese on the mainland and overseas.

In Sydney, about 200 people gathered late on Monday for a candlelight vigil its Town Hall, police said.

About 50 mainland Chinese students attended the rally, which was the biggest protest by mainland Chinese in Australia, said Chen Yonglin, a democracy activist who promoted the vigil on social media.

Most students covered their faces with masks and hats and declined to give their names. Several said they believed a Chinese embassy official was at the event monitoring it.

"They will try to find out who are the organisers," said Chen, a former Chinese consulate official who defected in 2005.

The Chinese embassy in Australia and the education office of the Chinese consulate in Sydney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As protests mount abroad, the situation on the ground in China has also escalated, with people in the southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou clashing with white hazmat-suited riot police on Tuesday night.

'PRAIRIE FIRE'

Social media has played a big role in spreading news of rallies and stirring debate, with thousands of mainland and overseas protesters flocking to audio-based networking app Clubhouse to share their views.

Lucia, a Clubhouse host with 1,800 followers who is based in Switzerland, told Reuters: "The boundaries of my fear are not the same anymore. I used to be afraid of being seen and heard, but now I hope to be seen and heard!"

In Hong Kong, Tiger, a 24-year-old fintech worker from mainland China, was surprised when a flier she helped design to mourn victims of the Xinjiang fire went viral on social media.

She told Reuters she had initially only shared the flier with about 10 friends, urging them to gather in central Hong Kong on Monday night.

"I don't know how it was spread, and I didn't organise it on purpose. But it showed that everyone was already thinking the same thing ... There's no need to incite," Tiger said. "A single spark can start a prairie fire."

(Reporting By Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto, Michael Martina in Washington, Jessie Pang in Hong Kong, Kirsty Needham in Sydney and David Kirton in Shenzhen; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel)