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After 17 weeks of marches and street clashes, in a movement that has transformed into a revolt against Chinese rule, protesters in Hong Kong have seized on a potent but controversial symbol to rally against: the swastika.

Retirees and students alike have hoisted images of the Chinese flag, rearranging its yellow stars into the shape of the contorted cross.

On walls and streets across the city, many thousands of posters are emblazoned with “Chinazi,” a term that has become a social-media hashtag and, in the past week, an increasingly popular internet search term. One poster that circulated this week listed a series of ugly events in Chinese history – the Cultural Revolution, The Great Famine and the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989 – around an unflattering sketch of Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Chinazi,” it was titled, with a subtitle: “Killing Since 1949.”

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The term is “a way to tell other people about the nature of the regime [in China]," said Benny Tai, a Hong Kong law professor who has been one of the city’s highest-profile democracy activists.

It also reflects the shifting objectives of the protest movement, which began in opposition to a now-cancelled extradition bill, but has turned into a larger uprising against the influence of mainland China, providing an opening for more radical voices to be heard.

The Chinazi portmanteau is controversial even among protesters, some of whom opted to abandon the word in favour of “totalitarianism” in marketing material for a rally Sunday. It was an acknowledgment that comparisons with Nazi Germany stand to cause global offence, even as scholars question the validity of the comparison, and local lawyers say altering the national emblem is likely illegal.

“Like today’s internet memes, it is short and eye-catching but hollow in terms of meaning and soon enough it will be forgotten,” said Bao Pu, a publisher in Hong Kong who has been critical of China. Last month, the Chinese government said it “strongly deplores” comparisons with Nazi Germany, after comments by an Australian politician.

“History has proven and will continue to prove that China’s peaceful development is an opportunity, not a threat to the world,” the Chinese embassy in Australia said.

But calls for Hong Kong protesters to abandon the epithet were largely ignored Sunday, as large crowds took to the streets holding thousands of poster boards with swastika-imprinted Chinese flags, while some used graffiti to deface Bank of China signs into “Bank of Chinazi.” It was a demonstration that turned into many hours of vandalism and violent clashes with police, just two days before Beijing celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The spread of the swastika is a particularly striking example of the radicalization of protesters, who have used progressively violent and destructive tactics to fight symbols of both China and the local government in Hong Kong. Some of the most outspoken have drawn inspiration from a belief that they occupy the front line of a much larger fight for human liberty, drawing parallels not only to Nazi Germany but also to the revolutionary movements that achieved independence in the United States and elsewhere.

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Such analogies have helped to galvanize fears about the rising influence of a regime in Beijing that protesters accuse of adopting policies of nationalism and racial primacy akin to those that swept Germany more than seven decades ago.

“They are very similar to the Nazis. For example, the concentration camps in Xinjiang,” said Bun Ching, a retiree who held a swastika-laden version of the Chinese flag at a rally Saturday night in Hong Kong. In Xinjiang, authorities have placed more than one million people into centres for forced political indoctrination and vocational training, most of them members of the largely-Uyghur Muslims minority, according to U.S. government estimates.

Such centres are not extermination facilities – much of what is known about their function comes from people who have been released, some after lengthy stays – although former detainees have described severe maltreatment. Chinese officials have countered by arranging tours for diplomats and journalists to witness detainees dance and express their gratitude for an opportunity to reform incorrect extremist thinking.

But others have expanded the analogy. “Xi Jinping being made President-for-life and building a personality cult recalls Adolf Hitler’s proclamation of being the one and only Fuhrer,” said Yu Chi-Ho, one of the administrators of an anti-Chinese Communist Party Facebook page. “Using Chinazi represents acceptance of the common claim that ‘the 21st century belongs to China,’ but that China’s rise will be disastrous for all humanity.”

Such comparisons, however, diminish history and risk distracting from the “very substantive” issues in Hong Kong at the moment, warned Glen Steinman, co-chairman of the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre.

“The situation in Hong Kong is just not objectively comparable to what happened under the Nazis,” he said. “Nazi Germany was based on an ideology that discriminated and set the stage for mass genocide on the basis of race.”

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The Chinazi term was popularized as the title of a book published last year by Yu Jie, a Chinese dissident writer living in the United States.

The Chinese President has amassed a “much stronger ability to control people and their minds than Hitler ever did,” Mr. Yu said in an interview. In the United States, historians have criticized his use of the term, telling him, he said, that Nazi is a very unique historical term that represents a specific background and is only applicable to Germany. But, he argued, “It can be used to refer to a certain phenomenon, when a regime turns evil and causes its people pain.”

Mr. Yu said he is thrilled that the term has been adopted in Hong Kong, whose protesters he praised for “abandoning their romantic ideas about China” in favour of what he called a more realistic view. “What they’ve done is more successful than all of the past fights we Chinese people have engaged in, including June 4, 1989,” he said.

In two weeks, he will publish a new book in Taiwan discussing the possibility of independence for Hong Kong, which is Chinese territory and home to a People’s Liberation Army garrison.

University of Macau Holocaust scholar Glenn Timmermans has watched Hong Kong demonstrators adopt the swastika with “dismay,” he said Sunday.

“When everybody else’s bad behaviour becomes ‘Nazi,’ it just reduces the horror of the Nazis,” he said. He pointed in particular to recent posters depicting Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam with a pencil mustache.

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“She’s not doing a very good job. But she’s not Hitler,” she said. Comparisons to the USSR, and to Soviet gulags, might be more apt, he said.

Still, advocates of Hong Kong independence have sought to use Chinazi as a shorthand for their views of China, and to attract international support to their cause. On Sunday, Andy Chan, one of the city’s most prominent pro-independence figures, delivered a speech to politicians in Taiwan in which he asked “everyone to address China as Chinazi,” he said in an interview.

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