Over 100 people, including dozens of Chinese students, called for an end to China’s zero-COVID policy and lashed out at the country’s authoritarian political system during a demonstration Wednesday in South Korea’s capital, the latest overseas show of support for protests that have swept mainland China.
The protesters, who gathered on the street in Seoul’s Hongdae neighborhood, held signs reading “Dictator out” and “Free China” as they called for Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down.
Others held blank white sheets of paper, which have become a protest symbol amid Chinese government censorship, and called for freedom of expression and the right to vote.
Over a dozen cities worldwide have seen demonstrations in solidarity with the protests in China, which began as a localized backlash against severe pandemic restrictions but quickly turned into the country’s biggest nationwide show of public dissent in decades.
At the Seoul gathering, several dozen protesters were South Korean residents, but most of the attendees appeared to be Mandarin speakers, including many from mainland China. As the protest got larger throughout the night, most of the chants turned solely to Chinese.
Zhang, a 25-year-old student from Beijing, told VOA she feared harassment or punishment by Chinese authorities if they found out she attended the gathering but said she was inspired by the protest culture she has witnessed in Seoul.
“When I first came to Korea as an exchange student, I was surprised to see people express their discontent with the administration of [former South Korean President] Moon Jae-in on the streets. I was surprised to see these images of Korea, and my thoughts changed,” Zhang said.
“I think it’s natural for people to protest when there's a problem in society,” she added.
Tens of thousands of mainland Chinese young people study at South Korean universities every year.
The Chinese students occasionally draw headlines for their fierce nationalistic defense of the Chinese government, especially after many South Korean students expressed solidarity with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
That dynamic makes it even more striking that some Chinese students, at least in small numbers, stood side by side Wednesday with Koreans as they criticized Beijing.
A mainland Chinese woman who attended the Seoul gathering said she is as surprised as anyone at the developments of the past week.
“We heard chants [by demonstrators in mainland China] calling for the [Chinese] government to step down. … I did not even think it was possible for these kinds of words to come out of someone’s mouth,” said the woman, who did not provide a name.
Now, she is trying to do what she can to keep up the protest momentum overseas, even as there are signs that the demonstrations are slowing in China.
“I am convinced that we should do more in Korea and abroad,” she said. “South Korea also gained democracy by struggling one by one. We see this as the beginning."