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Analysis: China's female protesters break nation free from zero-COVID

Xi snubbed women in leadership shuffle but pent-up frustration may boomerang

By KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

DECEMBER 15, 2022

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He was the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize.

Saturday was a watershed moment for China, with authorities on high alert to prevent the student movement against the strict zero-COVID policy from turning into a wider call for democracy and universal human rights.

At a major university in central China, a paper sign was stuck to the window of a student dormitory declaring International Human Rights Day. It was an expression of support for the "white paper movement."

The sign was immediately removed by school authorities, and the protesters were silenced.

In the 1980s, International Human Rights Day was taught at Chinese schools. At the time, the Communist Youth League, a gateway to party leadership, played a major role in human-rights education.

Although "human-rights education" in China significantly differs from that in free nations, there was at least an effort to discuss the subject.

Now Chinese students are no longer allowed to even refer to Human Rights Day -- an anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his leadership team managed to get through Saturday, a day that is symbolic for past pro-democracy student movements in the country, without visible damage.

Yet, one close observer of China noted the significance of the protests. "Chinese society has seen a clear change in the wake of the white paper movement, and the impact will become evident sooner or later."

This, the source said, is because the easing of the zero-COVID policy is, without doubt, a concession. The first student-led social movement since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests extracted an unequivocal concession from the authoritarian regime.

Students and ordinary citizens have now tasted success. Pressuring the party and the government paid off.

The first student-led social movement since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests won a concession rather than a military crackdown.

The achievement is all the more significant considering that it comes against Xi, who in October acquired ultimate power at the Chinese Communist Party's national congress.

The perception is that Xi had no choice but to swallow his pride and make a concession, that not doing so might have created an even fiercer movement -- one calling for his resignation.

In reality, Xi might have used the white paper movement to flip-flop away from his zero-COVID policy, which was wreaking havoc on China's economy.

There are no women in the latest Politburo lineup, unveiled in October. (Photo by Yusuke Hinata)

Whatever the truth, the switch is about to bring unintended consequences. While the protests have quietened down, another large-scale demonstration could be triggered, should another intolerable situation arise.

And a precedent has been set. Protests should be able to extract new concessions, the new logic goes.

In this regard, the Xi administration might have unintentionally opened Pandora's box.

One notable element of the white paper movement was that women were at the forefront. "Those who led the movements in various parts of the country are clearly women," said a source familiar with social movements across China. "Lying behind their movement is a basic argument that women's rights should be protected."

The argument that the inhumane zero-COVID policy should be abolished, having restricted freedoms for far too long, is part of a much larger position, one that demands various rights, the source reasoned. And the backdrop behind all of this, the source insisted, is a drive to protect women's rights.

Photographs of white paper rallies in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing and other Chinese locales invariably show women on the front line bravely holding up blank sheets of paper.

Interestingly, women were also at the forefront of demonstrations held in Taipei, Hong Kong and Tokyo in support of the white paper protesters on the mainland.

Protesters in Beijing on Nov. 27 hold up signs essentially telling President Xi Jinping to fill in the blank. (Photo retouched for security reasons) © AP

This women-led international solidarity is a new phenomenon.

Contemporary Chinese men tend to be conservative, sometimes unwilling to take bold action for fear of hurting their ability to gain and maintain social status as well as their future job prospects.

Most Chinese women have jobs too, but there are many women who have been impacted by job cuts related to the zero-COVID policy. Their demands included calls for jobs, food and basic human rights.

What made the white paper protests tricky for Xi was that they reflected the various contradictions pervading Chinese society. It was difficult to create a narrative to crack down on them.

Protesters take part in a rally commemorating victims of China’s zero-COVID policy outside Shinjuku Station on Nov. 30 in Tokyo, Japan. © Getty Images

The zero-COVID policy, once touted by China as a great success, is now causing new problems on the social policy front.

Pent-up frustration among Chinese women is also due to sexual harassment and sexual violence in the country.

Earlier in the year, a public uproar occurred when a video of a 44-year-old woman, restrained with a chain around her neck, went viral on the internet.

Jiangsu Province authorities arrested her husband on suspicion of abuse. After being brought to a farming village, the woman, a victim of human trafficking, went on to have eight children with the husband.

China has a demographic imbalance. Rural areas, especially, have been left with more men than women due to the country's long-standing but defunct one-child policy.

Widespread kidnappings and trafficking of women to compensate for the "bride shortage" is a major social issue in China.

The incident shed new light on oppressed women across the country and sparked nationwide calls for protecting their rights.

Local authorities initially tried to cover it up, but the calls on social media made it impossible to ignore. As with the abolition of the zero-COVID policy, the power of the people was on display.

The white paper movement is not over; social frustrations, such as those over women's rights, remain on a simmer. Protests could reemerge sometime in the future and be even stronger.

There is a possibility that new trends will link social movements throughout mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan despite measures like the Hong Kong national security law of 2020.

A person who held a key student union post at a main university in Hong Kong commented on recent developments within the mainland. "Finally," the source said, "people on the mainland have begun to have the same feelings toward the pro-democracy movements that have taken place in Taiwan and Hong Kong in recent years."

In the future, blank pieces of paper could prove as mighty as farm instruments were at the Palace of Versailles. (Photo retouched for security reasons) © Reuters

The impact of the women on the streets stands in stark contrast to Xi's enthusiasm toward promoting women to key posts.

The all-male 24-member Politburo revealed at the party congress has drawn international condemnation.

Some see Xi's snubbing of women in the leadership shuffle as mirroring his lack of interest in protecting women's rights and seeming reluctance to attach importance to their points of view.

Exactly 200 years before the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, women played a significant role in the French Revolution. On Oct. 5, 1789, thousands of housewives, young women and others in Paris began a massive march toward the Palace of Versailles, where the king and queen consort lived, demanding food, which was in extremely short supply.

They held in their hands knives and scythes that they were prepared to use as weapons.

At the forefront of China's white paper protests, women were holding blank sheets of A4 paper. The destructive power of these empty pages does not pale compared to the kitchen and farm instruments that toppled the French monarchy.

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