The dissent was nearly unimaginable until a few days ago.
Protests against Covid lockdowns have rippled across China, among the most widespread there in decades. Some Chinese people, many of them young, are fed up with the government’s lockdowns, mandatory quarantines and mass testing, all part of the zero-Covid strategy intended to limit transmission of the virus. But few demonstrators shouted their frustration — they held up white pieces of paper instead.
These blank sheets illuminate the limits of criticism in China. In democracies, booming crowds and brazen signs are hallmarks of protest. But Chinese citizens risk being prosecuted for criticizing the government. The Communist Party under Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has cracked down on dissent, making even subtle acts of opposition perilous.
“These protests are absolutely extraordinary, especially in the era of Xi Jinping, who has really tightened controls on speech,” said Vivian Wang, a Times correspondent in Beijing who is covering the demonstrations there. “The white paper is an implicit criticism of that censorship.”
Standing at night in the dark, faces covered by masks, the protesters risk imprisonment by gathering at all. The empty paper serves as plausible deniability, a test to see how far they can go before being punished.
Today, I want to share photos and videos that illustrate how protesters are deploying unusual tactics to challenge the authorities.
Images of defiance
The protests started after a building fire in the far western city of Urumqi killed at least 10 people, a tragedy many attributed to strict Covid lockdowns that confined people to their homes. People gathered in cities across the country to mourn the victims, including on Urumqi Road in Shanghai:
As anger spread across the country, the vigils morphed into protests against China’s zero-Covid policies. One gathering in Beijing began at an altar adorned in tribute to the fire’s victims and evolved into this demonstration:
At the shifting, often leaderless scenes, even the demonstrators were uncertain about what to label the events, and some used blank signs to lean into the ambiguity. One Shanghai resident said that the initial purpose of the papers on Saturday was to signal to the police that those gathered were mourning silently. (White is a common color at Chinese funerals.)
“Chinese people are used to seeing their speech censored online, but you can’t censor people if they don’t say anything,” Vivian said. “They also don’t need to say anything. People know what they mean.”
The seemingly innocuous papers have forced government officials to determine what might be grounds for arrest, and some protesters used the sheets to mock the Communist Party’s predicament. Below, one paper on a wall at a gathering in Shanghai reads “I didn’t say anything” in Mandarin:
Some protests were more direct. Crowds of people in Beijing and Shanghai, mainly in their 20s and 30s, marched and chanted for an end to the country’s three years of draconian Covid restrictions and demanded more rights. “We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom!” they shouted. “Freedom of the press! Freedom of publishing!” Some in Shanghai went so far as to even call for Xi to step down, a rare and bold challenge.
Late Friday, videos circulated widely on the Chinese internet showing throngs of residents in Urumqi marching to a government building and chanting, “End lockdowns”:
As the protests continued into this week, Communist Party officials escalated their response, blanketing gathering sites with security personnel and vehicles. Here, you can see the police confronting a man as they tried to block a street in Shanghai:
The authorities also went to homes to warn people against protesting and took some of them away for questioning. The specter of more aggressive crackdown is often enough to keep people from uniting to protest.
Censors scrubbed protest symbols and slogans from social media, and Chinese spam flooded Twitter to obscure news of the unrest. Some protest images slipped through, going viral outside the Chinese mainland. The hashtag “A4Revolution” — A4 is a reference to the size of the white pieces of paper — trended on Twitter over the weekend. At a vigil in Hong Kong, demonstrators held up blank paper in solidarity:
What happens next remains uncertain. What is clear is that the protests have united many Chinese people in a rare display of civil unrest. Xi has remained silent, but the demonstrations have fractured the perception abroad that he exacts ironclad control over China’s citizens. Outside a university in Seoul, South Korea, hand-drawn posters criticized the Chinese government and begged for the world’s help — in the form of attention:
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