The author has requested to stay anonymous.
Edited by Marco Monroy
1. A protest triggered by a fire
On November 25, 2022, a high-rise fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, resulted in ten casualties. The government’s ambiguous statements, and layers of accumulated public grievances, mixed with sensitive and complex ethnic issues in Xinjiang led to the ignition of public anger. After the government announced lifting some pandemic restrictions in parts of Urumqi, the locals took to the streets in revolt against the government’s anti-epidemic measures.
According to official media reports, the area where the fire occurred was a “low-risk” area, and this level of closure allowed residents to go downstairs. However, according to netizens’ claims, most of the area had been sealed for more than 100 days, leaving residents in dire straits and with little access to food and other necessities like medicine and feminine hygiene products. This type of control is called static management, a common policy of the Zero-COVID era to achieve near zero level of community spread. Static management had been achieved in Xinjiang, causing a major hindrance to personal life and local economic development.
To evade censure, protesters developed creative techniques involving ironic messaging and strategic ambiguity. Some protesters sang a national song with provocative lyrics like “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves.” Others posted ludicrously gushing messages about the regime and the security personnel, clearly meant to be perceived as thinly-veiled criticism. Others used the phrase “shrimp moss” which sounds like “step down” in Chinese. Most famously, though, protesters held aloft blank sheets of paper in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Hangzhou, which became the most well-known trope.
Why use white paper? Because it’s a form of silent protest. From a global perspective, Black Americans marched down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 1917 to protest racial violence and discrimination. Earlier in 2022, Russians who opposed Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine were violently removed from the streets after holding up. In China, an authoritarian state with mass censorship, simple words, and images can become crimes. In 2020, Hong Kong citizens stunned by the arrival of a new security law lodged their fury by holding up fresh sheets of printer paper.
In Shanghai, residents gathered on Urumqi Middle Road, named after the Xinjiang city, to mourn the deceased in the fire. Demonstrations were also seen in Beijing, where many students gathered at Tsinghua University to denounce restrictions on their free movement. Hundreds of protesters were also seen in the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic originated in late 2019. The same happened in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
2. Anti-lockdown protest?
Although the protest was initially intended to mourn the victims of the Urumqi fire, an underlying grievance was the protesters’ dissatisfaction with the government’s long-standing policy of strict Zero-COVID.
After the initial wave of strict lockdowns shortly after the pandemic began, governments around the world gradually reduced restrictions on how people could travel and live. On the other hand, the Chinese government adopted a strict Zero-COVID policy and tightened controls for much longer than other countries. From health codes to digital travel passes and other quarantine policies, these restrictions have hurt economic development and greatly inconvenienced people’s normal lives. According to the Chinese Bureau of Statistics, China’s economy grew by 3% in 2022, which is far below the 5.5% target set by the government for 2022.
A typical example is the Zhengzhou Foxconn incident. In late October 2022, Zhengzhou Foxconn responded to the dynamic clearing policy by prohibiting its employees from leaving the factory. Subsequently, there was a spate of employees that decided to jump the factory’s separation walls in order to go home. In response, the government then required employees affiliated with such companies to sign replacement labor contracts in mid-November, promising certain bonuses for additional work at the plant.
Official media said that more than 100,000 people had signed these contracts in Zhengzhou as of November 18, 2022. Between November 22 and 23, Foxconn employees clashed with security personnel due to dissatisfaction with unreasonably low pay for the harsh policies required to prevent and control COVID-19 outbreaks. Employees at the plant uploaded numerous videos to major social media outlets in mainland China expressing their demands and claiming that Foxconn did not provide the bonuses and salaries they were entitled to under their contracts.
Since October, when slogans against the Zero-COVID policy and Xi Jinping were raised in Sitongqiao, similar demonstrations have been seen and swiftly repressed in places like Zhengzhou, Guangzhou, and Chongqing. It is therefore not surprising that the white paper movement attracted nationwide attention.
In December 2022, China ended its Draconian Zero-COVID policy shortly after the protest. Many international news outlets have suggested that the government’s sudden turnaround is closely related to the white paper protests.
3. An anti-government protest?
The government is very concerned about these protests. The movement has raised some concerns about forces outside China having an undue influence over these protests, a sensitive issue in China that the government is keenly interested in deterring.
On October 13, 2022, a protester hung two banners and played amplification equipment at Beijing’s Sithongqiao to openly oppose Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, while making demands such as calling for the end of the Zero-COVID policy. Police swiftly arrived to arrest them and clean up the scene. The fact that banners against Xi Jinping had already been openly raised in Beijing, particularly right before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, coupled with the slogan “Xi Jinping step down,” made the government hypersensitive to additional protesting.
The white paper movement against the Zero-COVID policy elicited a disproportionate reaction from the government due to its similarity with the Sitongqiao incident. This allowed the government to react as quickly and as tightly as possible to contain the impact of the protests. The anti-government or anti-Xi Jinping slogans were not universally shared by the masses. The demand was simply to oppose unreasonable control measures, and most participants did not want to overthrow the current government.
Just like the detained participants of the Saitongqiao incident, several demonstrators who were apprehended for publicly protesting China’s then-ongoing Zero-COVID policy remain in detention and either face charges or have not been heard from, according to Human Rights Watch on January 24.