Why the spirit of the White Paper protests lives on

Last year’s student demonstrations against China’s zero-Covid policy are now seen as a turning point

Last year, a fire in a high-rise residential building in Urumqi killed at least 10 people and injured nine. It sparked local protests that quickly spread across China’s cities, where people had been chafing for three years under Beijing’s draconian zero-Covid 19 policy.

The demonstrations are now widely seen as a turning point for the country, as the protesters – many of them students or young people adrift in the contracting job market – demanded an end to zero-Covid measures and denounced the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule.

Holding blank sheets of white paper, an internationally recognized metaphor for censorship, people took to the streets of Shanghai on November 26, in a Saturday night vigil for the fire victims.

Witnesses had said the victims may have been unable to escape or be rescued because doors to their building had been locked to comply with quarantine mandates.

The white paper protests quickly spread to Beijing, Chengdu, and elsewhere – even Wuhan, where Covid-19 was first identified in humans in December 2019. 

As police moved to quell the demonstrations and censors scrubbed China’s tightly controlled internet of references to the unrest, Beijing abruptly rescinded all restrictions.

Prison sentences

The move restored order to the streets but opened the door to a surge of Covid-related deaths among the elderly and other at-risk groups.

A year later, some of those arrested in the protests remain in prison. Many of those who were released are under surveillance. 

Yet the spirit of the White Paper Movement remains, according to many demonstrators interviewed by Voice of America Mandarin.

VOA granted the participants anonymity or the use of a pseudonym so they could speak without fear of reprisal about their experiences and share their views on how those days changed them and China. 

VOA Mandarin asked the Chinese Embassy for comments on the movement’s anniversary but has not yet received a response.

Those who spoke pointed to a greater willingness among Chinese to protest in ways both bold and subtle, often at the same time. 

President Xi Jinping was the target of protests. Photo: Wikimedia

An example was the Halloween party in Shanghai last month, where costumes poked fun at Chinese figures and social problems.

One young man who was arrested in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, told VOA that police arrested so many people he heard officers say they had “to distribute the detainees to all the police stations” in the entire Xuhui District. He said:

The fact that this event could take place shows that people were very angry because the lockdown caused some economic downturns and job losses. 

“But I feel that although it has not achieved something substantive, it will leave a footnote in history,” he added. “Nowadays, young people are still willing to take to the streets. If it happens again next time, I will still participate and support it.”

He pointed out that the White Paper Movement was China’s most confrontational national event since the student-led Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 that ended with a bloody massacre.

State control

Last year, Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto who specializes in civil society and state control, with a focus on China, told Canada’s CBC

This is a generation that is thought to be politically inert and brainwashed by patriotic education. The recent protests on university campuses … show that patriotic education has not completely wiped away yearnings for freedom among Gen Z.

Han Yun, a twentysomething woman in Beijing, said when she saw a social media posting about a protest in Beijing last year, she took a costly US$8 taxi ride to the scene after a nightmarish three years of lockdown and testing.

“I have no regrets because I know that if we didn’t go that night, Beijing would have to be closed for who knows how long,” she said.

Although authorities suppressed the movement, it continues to inspire people, she added:

After the White Paper Movement, everyone may have gone through a process of gradually overcoming fear. … For Halloween in Shanghai, some people covered their bodies with white paper.

Online videos and images from Halloween show people in costumes designed to vent their dissatisfaction with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. 

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They dressed up as Winnie the Pooh, who symbolizes Xi, and Covid-testers in white hazmat suits. One person turned up as Batman to remind people that the coronavirus might have originated in bats.

Huang Yicheng, a graduate of Peking University who used his real name, commented in the US-based Chinese-language online magazine Yibao about the event:

The 2023 Halloween parade was the largest social movement in Shanghai after the 2022 Urumqi Middle Road blank paper movement, with thousands of people participating. 

“Each activist used their creativity and brought their own ‘repertoire’ to the scene, turning the streets of Shanghai into a movable feast,” he said.

Han Yun said this year’s Halloween revelry made her feel that now everyone is actually looking to express themselves in the streets.

Yet in recent days, Chinese police began detaining people who appeared in costumes that carried a political message, according to VOA’s sister organization Radio Free Asia.

Public response

Han Yun also pointed to the public response to the sudden death of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on October 27.

Li was seen by many as the rare high-level official who represented the path of reform in Xi’s increasingly authoritarian China. 

Han Yun said some people left flowers to commemorate him. Others posted comments online on Li in contrast to Xi, triggering swift and strict censorship on China’s social media platforms.

Qu Zichuan, a netizen who claims to be a postmodernist, posted on X, formerly Twitter

In my opinion, Shanghai’s cosplayers showed various ‘ghosts’ in reality, including the continuation of the blank-paper youth spirit … People in Hefei set a record of 3 million people spontaneously paying tribute to Li … 

“People in Shanghai and Hefei expressed what they could not before, and their behavioral language can be spread infinitely,” Qu Zichuan said.

China launched massive testing for Covid-19. Photo: Courtesy Xinhua

One college student in Beijing told VOA that when his campus locked down during last year’s protests, he put up a piece of blank paper in school to express his solidarity.

He stressed that, as far as he knew, some young people who participated in the movement lost their freedom, and these people should not be forgotten.

“A year after the blank paper movement, China has lifted its lockdown. Everyone seems to have returned to a normal life,” he said, adding:

But as far as I know, many young people who were arrested for participating in the movement were released on bail … and are facing political oppression, such as harassment by state security and restrictions on leaving the country.

“Some people are still in detention, and their information is unknown. I hope people don’t forget these arrested and persecuted young people who are fighting for everyone’s rights,” he said.

Authoritarian system

The college student pointed out that the large-scale collective protest had led the Chinese government to finally reopen the country.

“But everyone should also see that such an authoritarian system locked everyone up at home for three years, causing such a huge disaster,” he said. 

“If the entire system does not change, if this continues, the next disaster will be in the not-too-distant future, and it will be even worse than this three-year lockdown. So, the fight for democracy and human rights must persist,” he added.

Ye Bing produced this article for Voice of America.

This article is republished courtesy of Voice of America. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.