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In China, Spirit of White Paper Protests Still Inspires

By Ye Bing

November 25, 2023

WASHINGTON — On Nov. 24, 2022, a fire in a high-rise residential building in Urumqi killed at least 10 people and injured nine, sparking local protests that quickly spread across China’s cities, where people had been chafing for three years under Beijing’s draconian zero-COVID policy.

The protests are now widely seen as a turning point for China, as the protestors — many of them students or young people adrift in China’s contracting job market — demanded an end to zero-COVID measures and denounced the Chinese 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 Nov. 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 COVID mandates.

The white paper protests quickly spread to Beijing, Chengdu and elsewhere — even Wuhan, where COVID was first identified in humans in December 2019. As police moved to quell the protests and censors scrubbed China’s tightly controlled internet of references to the unrest, China abruptly rescinded all COVID restrictions.

The move restored order to the streets but opened the door to a surge of COVID 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 protesters interviewed by VOA Mandarin.

VOA granted the participants anonymity or the use of a pseudonym so they could speak without fear of reprisal about their experiences during the November 26 to 28 protests 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 with VOA Mandarin pointed to a greater willingness among Chinese to protest in ways both bold and subtle, often at the same time. An example: Halloween celebrants in Shanghai last month whose costumes poked fun at Chinese figures and social problems.

One young man who was arrested in Shanghai on Nov. 27, 2022, last year after he showed up at an intersection on Urumqi Middle Road, where the white paper protests began spontaneously on Nov. 26, 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."

"The fact that this event could take place shows that people were very angry because the lockdown caused some economic downturns and job losses," he said. "But I feel that although it has not achieved something substantive, it will leave a footnote in history. Nowadays, young people and college students are still willing to take to the streets. If it happens again next time, I will still participate and support it."

He said the white paper movement was China's most confrontational national movement since the student-led Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 that ended with a bloody massacre of participants.

Last year, Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto who specializes in civil society, activism 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 that after a nightmarish three years of lockdown and testing, when she saw a social media posting about a protest in the Liangmaqiao area of Beijing on Nov. 27, 2022, she took a costly $8 taxi ride to the scene. There she found police and undercover security personnel monitoring the nighttime gathering.

"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.

She said that although authorities suppressed the white paper movement, it continues to inspire people.

"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," she said.

Some online videos and images from the Halloween event show people in costumes designed to vent their dissatisfaction with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. They dressed up as Winnie the Pooh, who symbolizes Xi, and COVID-testers in white hazmat suits. One person dressed 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 U.S.-based Chinese-language online magazine Yibao about the recent display.

"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," he wrote. "Each activist used their creativity and brought their own 'repertoire' to the scene, turning the streets of Shanghai into a movable feast."

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

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

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

One college student in Beijing told VOA that when his campus locked down during the 2022 protests, he put up a piece of blank paper in school to express his solidarity.

He said 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," he said. "Everyone seems to have returned to a normal life.

"But as far as I know, many young people who were arrested for participating in the movement were released on bail ... and are currently 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 to the outside world. I hope people don't forget these arrested and persecuted young people who are fighting for everyone's rights."

The college student added 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. 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."



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