Protests in China – a “white paper revolution”?
"White sheets of papers, no faces.
There is so much to say that cannot be said.
Because big brother is watching and censoring you."
This is what the blank pieces of white A4 paper express which the protesters in China use as a symbol for their protests. A symbol for the denial of free speech and censorship. Some even call it the “white paper revolution”. The protests in China began on Friday, 25th November and have spread all across the country. They are making headlines around the world, except inside China. What has caused those protests, what are the people demanding and how does China and the rest of the world react to it?
What has caused those protests?
China has pursued a zero-COVID policy since the outbreak of the virus in 2020. This means they aimed to eliminate coronavirus completely, rather than controlling its spread. They intended to keep the cases close to zero. This is the reason for restrictive measures and rules in China such as mass-testing, week-long lockdowns, enforced quarantine and digital tracking.
The government holds onto its zero-COVID policy as China’s healthcare system is simply not prepared to lift the policy. There is a lack of hospital beds, the Chinese vaccination is not as effective as mRNA vaccines and vaccination rates are very low. Furthermore, the government has committed itself to the policy and for saving their face and the appearance of control, they stick to it.
During the last weeks the numbers of COVID-cases have risen exponentially in China leading to lockdowns and shutdowns in cities affected. Even though this has already led to a tense atmosphere, the tipping point was a fire which broke out in an apartment building in Urumqi, in the province Xinjiang. It killed at least ten people, including children. People blamed the death of the people on the strict lockdown measures which have involved blocking and controlling the exits of apartment buildings. The city had been under lockdown for more than 100 days, with residents being unable to leave the region and many being forced to stay at home.
After this incident, people came out in Xinjiang itself and demanded the end of the lockdown. The following morning, the local government stated that it would lift the lockdown slowly but did not provide information about concrete steps and dates. This caused even more public anger and the protests also spread beyond the region, taking people to the streets in other cities across China.
In general, protests in China are – despite a different perception – common. People go onto the
streets in different cities to protest against local issues such as high living prices. But it is not common to protest nationwide for a single cause.
The current protests have gone beyond the anger about the zero-COVID policy and the incident in Xinjiang to call for freedom of speech, an end to the propaganda of the government and also the demand for an end of the communist party.
Since gaining power, Xi has limited the relative freedoms that the Chinese public had achieved in the early 2000. The zero-COVID policy has only intensified the feeling of being cut off from the world. After the party congress in October and the installment of XI as a president for life hope has been reduced that the system might evolve towards more freedom.
Some protesters are now openly calling for the end of the governance of Xi. The current protests are the largest since 1989. „Xi Jinping! Step down!“ and „Communist Party! Step down“ are heard more and more on the streets. This appears to be a serious threat to the government and the authorities try to dissolve the protests. Even though the protesters stay peaceful, authorities have responded with more and more force in some cities. Apart from arrests, videos have been published showing police pushing, dragging, and beating protesters. The authorities have also blocked sidewalks of streets completely, making it impossible for crowds to gather on the streets.
They also check the phones of people on the streets for VPNs and messenger providers such as
Telegram which are prohibited in China but used by people to connect themselves with others to organise the protests. As soon as videos or pictures are uploaded on the internet or on social media it only takes seconds until they disappear – deleted by the authorities. In the news the protests are not even mentioned with a single word. The reason for this is that the media is heavily controlled by the government making it nearly impossible for independent news sources to spread information not authorised by the government. Nevertheless, the protests haven received substantial online support.
How have other countries reacted?
In such circumstances, one would expect that leaders of states stand up in support for the protesters, especially from the western countries which proclaim freedom of speech being one of the highest goods in a democracy and a crucial right of the individual. Yet, there have not been a lot of reactions to the protest. The leaders of other governments stay muted. While the White House and U.S. State Department expressed disagreement with China’s zero-COVID policy and support for the protests, Joe Biden himself has not yet spoken up. Furthermore, they have also really carefully chosen their words trying to not overstep any borders. The reasons could be diverse. The main one however, could be the fact that in the current situation in the world with the war in Ukraine, and a massive clash in the relations between western countries and Russia, the governments do not want to mess with China too but keep up their relationship. Also, because China is a huge partner of trade for some countries and thus important for their national economy. Especially for the U.S., there are a lot of tensions with China, leading to a relationship which has reached its lowest point in decades.
The big threat here is that Chinese leadership might not read these protests as a sign of policy failure but as an indication that their control measures have not gone far enough, resulting in even more censorship and surveillance. But if the protests continue this could also be a serious test for Xi who could be challenged from the inside by politicians being unhappy with his leadership. However, no matter what happens, the protests have already resulted in a change: people went onto the streets protesting collectively against the current policies and the government, proclaiming their right of freedom of speech. Within days, the white papers have become a symbol of courage and maybe a symbol of a “white paper revolution”.