Candle-lit vigil on Prague’s Národní třída held in support of China’s “zero Covid” policy protests

On Monday night, members of the Chinese community in Prague gathered in Prague’s Národní trída, in a show of solidarity with the anti-government protests that have broken out across China. Many donned facemasks to protect themselves and feared to speak openly.

Last week, protests flared up across China in response to the government's “zero Covid” policy of mass testing, quarantines and snap lockdowns that have affected more than 1.4 billion people. In what was the last straw, they prevented firefighters from getting to a fire that killed ten people in an apartment building under lockdown.

From Shanghai to Beijing, citizens have been gathering, with chants of “lift the lockdown”, and “we want freedom”, being echoed by the crowds. Some have even been calling for the Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping, to step down in what is the biggest show of public discontent since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Footage from the protests, show a heavy police presence, with growing violence and arrests.

Since the protests began in China, a string of marches and vigils have been held in cities in Europe and North America, in solidarity with the Chinese people.

In Prague, a group of Chinese nationals living in the city assembled through a Telegram channel to plan a vigil on Prague’s Národní třída, the site of a brutal communist police crackdown on a peaceful student demonstration that triggered the Velvet Revolution 33 years ago. Most of the people attending the vigil did not know each other prior to gathering at the site on Monday evening.

The crowd created a candle-lit display, with a sign at the focal point reading “Our Lives Are One”. Protesters formed a line in front of the National Theatre, holding up pieces of blank white paper, which have appeared in demonstrations around China, in a silent, symbolic protest against censorship.

Students in Hong Kong chanted “oppose dictatorship” in a protest against China’s anti-virus controls | Photo: Kanis Leung,  ČTK/AP

But for Chinese nationals, protesting and speaking out comes with a price and a risk, even when living abroad. Many of the attendees at the Monday night vigil donned a facemask in order to protect themselves and their families back in China. Those willing to speak wished to remain in anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“I’m feeling happy, excited, but also a bit sad,” said one Chinese participant, who has been living in Prague for a few months. “I’m happy because this is something really unexpected that has shocked the whole world, since there have been no civil movements in China since 1989. In China, there is no Facebook or Telegram, so people really spread the news about this by word of mouth and passing it along through friends, who then gathered in the streets.”

While the development and organization of the protests in China has been grassroots and peaceful in its intention, violence has begun to ensue. And those living abroad fear for the fate of families and friends at home.

Photo: ČTK/AP/Uncredited

“I’m sad because of the news that people are already getting arrested or that police have been using more force and more violence.”

At the same time, Chinese protesters in Prague are grateful for the global community's response.

“The whole world is showing solidarity, from London to Berlin. We want people in China to see that even though we are abroad, that we stand with our Chinese people.”

Although these acts of solidarity made some participants optimistic, many felt it was too soon to know if change is coming to China.

“I’m a bit pessimistic, I don’t want to get my hopes up, I hope there will be change, but I’m also telling myself that this is just the beginning.”