A group of students studying at Hong Kong’s top university staged a small demonstration on campus on Tuesday evening to show solidarity with the anti-Covid regulation demonstrations in mainland China.

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An anti-Covid policy protest at the University of Hong Kong on November 29, 2022. Photo: Alex Chan Tsz-yuk.

Around eight to 10 people gathered at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), holding blank sheets of A4 paper and chanting slogans such as “no lock down, we want freedom” and “no PCR tests, we want meals,” according to local media reports.

hku protest covid-19
An anti-Covid policy protest at the University of Hong Kong on November 29, 2022. Photo: Undergrad HKUSU.

The protest began at around 6 p.m. when a woman started lighting white candles to commemorate the victims of a recent fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, that killed 10. Residents blamed anti-epidemic measures in the locked down city for hampering rescue efforts, although local officials deny that was the case. Protests against mainland China’s stringent zero-Covid policy escalated after the incident.

The woman then held up a piece paper with the words “external forces” on it, with “external” crossed out and replaced it with “internal.” Beijing blamed “forces with ulterior motives” for linking the fatal Urumqi fire to coronavirus curbs as demonstrations spread across the mainland over the weekend.

alex hku protest 2
An anti-Covid policy protest at the University of Hong Kong on November 29, 2022. Photo: Alex Chan Tsz-yuk.

The woman and other demonstrators who joined her later said they were not foreign forces but “Chinese citizens,” adding that “there should be different opinions within China.”

hku protest covid-19
A protester held a placard that crossed out “external forces” and replaced it with “internal” forces at an anti-Covid policy protest at the University of Hong Kong on November 29, 2022. Photo: Undergrad, HKUSU.

Some held up blank sheets of paper – a symbol adopted by protesters across mainland Chinese cities as an acknowledgement of the censorship and lack of free speech in the country. Following the enactment of the national security law in Hong Kong, protesters also turned to blank pieces of paper to symbolise shrinking freedom of expression and avoid using slogans that might be prohibited under the legislation.

Little participation from locals

According to videos posted by journalists, a man who joined the HKU demonstration said it was “heart-breaking” to see so few people come and support the rally, which was mostly attended by mainland Chinese students.

“We don’t know what persecution they will face, but they still have the courage to stand here… I know it’s quite scary at this moment. And I don’t know – maybe the police will just charge me later – I’m not sure. But I will still stand here,” he said, speaking in English.

During the event, HKU security asked demonstrators to show their student identifications and blow out the candles. The protesters ignored the demands but the guards did not do anything further.

There have been solidarity protests across Hong Kong in the past few days – either on university campuses or busy streets.

In spite some relaxations of pandemic rules, China’s foreign ministry doubled down on its zero-Covid policy on Tuesday. “We believe that with the leadership of the Communist party of China, and cooperation and support of the Chinese people, our fight against Covid-19 will be successful,” spokesperson Zhao Lijian told the press.

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Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.