Memes, puns and blank sheets of paper: China’s creative protest actions
In Shanghai, a vigil grew into a street protest, with many holding up white sheets in a sign of tacit defiance.
In Beijing, students at Tsinghua University put up signs showing a mathematical equation developed by Russian physicist Alexander Friedman, whose Chinese surname is a homonym for “free man.”
And on China’s oppressed internet, where positive messages abound and negative ones are erased, protesters resorted to irony: they posted walls of text covered in Chinese characters for “yes,” “good,” and “right” to signal their dissatisfaction, while evading censorship.
Those messages – elusive, creative and often tongue-in-cheek – were among many that set the tone of protests across China over the past weekend, as anger over lockdown measures quickly turned into one of the boldest displays of dissent nearly three years into the pandemic against the Chinese authorities has developed in years.
Protests erupted in at least a dozen cities after a fire in the far western region of Xinjiang killed 10 people on Thursday, according to official counts, a number many suspected was linked to Covid restrictions that people had been putting on hold for weeks locked in their homes.
Demonstrators in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, marched to government buildings on Friday. The protests spread to dozens of streets and universities in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu – rare demonstrations of resistance in a country where authorities have very little tolerance for open dissent.
Some of the protesters have gone so far as to directly condemn the authorities, denouncing them in sometimes inflammatory and explicit language, or even calling for the resignation of China’s leader Xi Jinping.
But many communicated through more subtle methods. Among the most prominent were the blank sheets of white paper used in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities to mourn victims of the Xinjiang fire — white is a common funeral color in China — and to express an anger shared by millions who have died have suffered from it is implicitly understood to be pandemic restrictions.
Showing wordless papers “means ‘we are the voiceless ones, but we are also powerful,'” said Hazel Liu, a 29-year-old film producer who attended the vigil along the Liangma River in Beijing on Sunday.
Mourners also used blank white sheets on Shanghai’s Urumqi Road on Saturday night. A resident said the original purpose of the papers was to signal police that those gathered would mourn the lost without saying anything.
But as more and more people gathered, feelings of sadness and frustration morphed into broader calls for government accountability. Late in the evening, hundreds of protesters brought their own blank papers and held them up in the sky, demanding an end to Covid restrictions.
“People have a common message,” said Xiao Qiang, an internet freedom researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “They know what they want to say and the authorities know it too, so people don’t have to say anything. If you hold a blank sheet of paper in your hand, everyone will know what you mean.”
Some protesters told the New York Times that the white papers were inspired by a Soviet-era joke in which a dissident, approached by police about handing out leaflets in a public square, revealed that the leaflets were blank. When asked, the dissident replies that there is no need for words, because “everyone knows.”
Anti-government protesters in Hong Kong also used blank paper in 2020, days after a national security law was passed to quell dissent. After officials and police repeatedly warned against chanting political slogans, many held up the blank slates in malls while protest graffiti scrubbed the city.
During the new wave of protests in China, videos and photos of blank white papers have gone viral outside of the heavily censored Chinese internet. The hashtag “A4Revolution” — a reference to the size of the sheets of paper — started trending on Twitter over the weekend. On Facebook and Instagram, users changed their profile photos to blank sheets in support of the protesters.
Some have taken the protests in other creative directions. A statement apparently sent by one of China’s largest stationery companies circulated online, saying the company would stop selling A4 paper to “ensure national security and stability”. The company was forced to announce on its social media account that the news was fabricated and all operations remained normal.
The muted defiance of the protests – often harmless on the surface – has left the police with the nebulous task of deciding what crosses the line.
A bespectacled man held up a sign that read “You know what I’m about to say” at a mall in Shanghai on Sunday afternoon. Nearby, on Urumqi Road, another man stood in the middle of the road and held up a flower to the sky. “What should one fear?” he asked passersby who were filming with their cellphones.
He was soon attacked by a crew of police officers and taken into a car.
China’s authorities have so far remained silent on the protests. And lacking in obvious targets, they resorted to icon removal. Pictures from Shanghai on Sunday showed three men in construction clothes walking away with the street sign saying “Urumqi Middle Road,” the site of the protest.
The step backfired.
By Monday, the severed street sign itself had become a meme. On the cover of the famous Abbey Road album, mocking images circulated on the internet of the Beatles crossing the street with the Urumqi street sign.
“This is the work of the censorship mechanisms. They created this situation,” Professor Xiao said. “When everyone suffers from ‘zero Covid’ restrictions and anger is so widespread, then all memes will resonate.”
Tiffany May contributed reporting.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/28/world/asia/china-protests-blank-sheets.html Memes, puns and blank sheets of paper: China’s creative protest actions