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How blank sheets of paper became a protest symbol in China

Demonstrations against Beijing’s “zero covid” policy spread to cities around the world on Nov. 28, showing solidarity with the protesters in China. (Video: Reuters)

Protesters in Chinese cities, angry over Beijing’s “zero covid” policy, are using blank sheets of paper to get their message across.

As demonstrations flared over the past few days, participants have raised the white pages as a symbol — and protest — of government censorship. The sheets have also signaled a measure of unity among protesters, whose demonstrations now mark one of the greatest displays of public dissent in China in decades.

Rare protests against China’s ‘zero covid’ policy erupt across country

Protests are not actually rare in China. But authorities, who tightly control media and the internet, regularly go to great lengths to ensure that demonstrators in different regions are unable to link up to form a broader movement, according to analysts.

Mass, anti-government protests with a unified message breaking out in different cities? That’s a “no-go zone,” said Matt Schrader, an advisor for China at the International Republican Institute in Washington.

But, he said, the blank paper protest, a tactic demonstrators also used in Hong Kong in 2020, has layers of symbolism.

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China’s ‘zero covid’ protests
Across China, a weekend of mass protests broke out in cities and on campuses against the government’s unpopular “zero covid” policy. Local security officials on Monday clamped down on citizens defying threats of reprisal, including some who used blank sheets of paper to get their message across.
‘Zero covid’
“Zero covid” attempts to keep coronavirus cases as close to zero as possible. For nearly three years, China has persisted with the policy, despite the economic and human costs, that’s left a vast population without natural immunity. Here’s what to know about the policy and how it triggered recent protests.
The human toll
Many have blamed the government’s draconian rules for delaying emergency response to tragedies including a fatal fire that killed 10 and a deadly bus crash. In Shanghai, a nurse died of an asthma attack after being refused admittance to her own hospital. “Zero covid” lockdowns have left people pleading for food and medical care.

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“It’s the idea that when no form of protest at all is acceptable to the state, then the only thing that you could possibly hold up that won’t offend anybody in power is a blank piece of paper,” he said. “It’s the idea that any real form of protest online will mostly be censored.”

And so, he said, the blank piece of paper symbolizes the dissatisfaction “that everyone understands what they’re talking about, but they’re not actually able to name that thing that infuriates them.”

In highly censored environments such as China, “protest has to take on playful and inventive means in order to evade the censors,” said Jemimah Steinfeld, editor in chief of the Index on Censorship, a London-based organization advocating for freedom of expression worldwide.

But in China, even clever wordplay, puns and hidden symbols have become more challenging to use.

After Chinese censors banned annual commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, internet users began to use “May 35.” Beijing banned that “date” too.

In 2013, “24th Anniversary” was banned; “25th Anniversary” in 2014; “26th Anniversary” in 2015,” and so on. Beijing banned a pictogram that looks like a tank rolling over a man: 占占点.

To get around censorship during the height of the #MeToo movement, Chinese internet users used the characters or emoji for “rice,” pronounced “mi,” and “bunny,” pronounced “tu.”

“But the blank sheet of paper is more likely to work,” Steinfeld said. “After all, how can you root out and punish someone who hasn’t said anything?”

Though the blank paper protest symbol is inconspicuous, even silent, some protesters are also making loud, explicit statements — some so extraordinarily strong that they’re rarely heard in China.

“Xi Jinping, step down!” and “Communist Party, step down!” a group of bold protesters chanted in Shanghai over the weekend.

Others chanted for “Freedom!” or to “Unlock all of China!”

Protests against China’s “zero covid” policy spread to cities around the country on Nov. 27. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

The protests, which spread over the weekend, reveal just how fed up people are after nearly three years of ongoing pandemic lockdowns, analysts said.

The final trigger was an apartment complex fire at Urumqi, Xinjiang, that killed 10 on Thursday. People were outraged, saying pandemic restrictions on movement slowed and made ineffective the firefighters’ ability to rescue the victims.

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