Filling in the blank: Why protesters in China are waving white sheets of paper

Wanting to send a message to the Chinese government, protesters in cities across the country held up blank sheets of paper.

There was no text, symbols or images on the pages – just blank white rectangles, meant to be a metaphor for China’s censorship of dissent.

For Teng Biao, the meaning was clear.

« People can read behind the blank paper. Anger, discontent and the desire for democracy and freedom. It’s all there already, » said Teng, a Chinese human rights activist, lawyer and academic living in exile. in the United States, to CBC News. .

People hold blank sheets of paper during a protest against COVID-19 measures in Shanghai on Sunday. Demonstrators in several cities have also called for democratic reforms, even for the resignation of President Xi Jinping. (Josh Horwitz/Reuters)

The protests, which began on Friday, were rooted in a desire to lift the country’s COVID-19 lockdown measures. Nearly three years into the pandemic, China remains committed to its strict “zero-COVID” policy, with entire buildings and even neighborhoods often locked down in case of infection, and millions of people tested daily for the coronavirus.

But some blamed the restrictions for firefighters’ inability to save 10 people from a deadly blaze in the northwest city of Urumqi the night before, saying some of the building’s doors and exits had been closed in as part of the lockdown measures. It sparked this latest wave of anger.

health coronavirus china protests
A police officer asks a woman to leave as she holds up a white sheet of paper in protest in Hong Kong on Tuesday, during a commemoration for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, China. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

The movement, however, quickly turned into a call for more political rights: freedom of speech, democratic reforms and even the ousting of Chinese President Xi Jinping, in an unprecedented challenge to his leadership.

Some observers have dubbed the protesters – and the sheets of white paper they are waving – the « white paper revolution » or « A4 revolution », in reference to the size of letterhead.

While their revolt is highly unlikely to upset China’s political establishment, experts say the protesters are nonetheless sending an extraordinary signal to the ruling Communist Party – without saying a word.

« They’re actually saying something without saying anything, » said Dave Clark, a political science professor at Binghamton University in New York, who leads a global protests monitoring project.

WATCH | White sheets of paper become symbols of protest in China:

White sheets of paper become a symbol of protest in China

White sheets of paper have become symbols of protest in China as thousands call for an end to restrictive ‘zero COVID’ policies and greater freedoms in a place where censorship is rampant and protest can be deadly.

Decades of protests on paper

Blank signs have been a feature of protests, albeit rarely, for more than 50 years, including a brazen sit-in by Toronto high school students in May 1969.

“They carried blank signs and said their protest had no purpose and they expected nothing,” the Associated Press reported, adding that the group refused to budge until their demands were met. would not have been satisfied.

Today, this empty symbol of defiance has become a code for protest movements in several countries.

In 2020, after Hong Kong imposed a national security law banning protest slogans, pro-democracy protesters used blank paper — including plastering walls with empty Post-it notes — to signal their resistance to Beijing.

hong kong protest slogans
The wall of a cafe in Hong Kong, decorated with blank Post-it notes, on July 9, 2020, as part of a demonstration in support of the region’s pro-democracy movement. Notes with words of encouragement for the protesters were removed for fear their contents would get them in trouble with the authorities, and blank sticky notes were later posted as a way to show solidarity. (Vincent Yu/Associated Press)

Plain white placards appeared again earlier this year during anti-war protests in Russia, where police arrested people carrying placards and posters – whether or not they have something written on them.

Even the British have clashed with the authorities for protesting with a single white sheet of paper. In September, as police arrested people protesting King Charles’s accession, a barrister who had walked into Parliament Square and held up a blank sheet of paper was confronted by police, who asked him give their name and contact details.

In China, protesters believed the White Pages might provide some cover if they were detained by police, Teng said. After all, what is politics in a piece of paper with nothing on it?

« If you have a banner or paper with words like ‘Down with the Communist Party’ or ‘Down with Xi Jinping,’ something like that is super dangerous, » Teng said.

« Holding a blank sheet of paper is a way to reduce political and legal risk: during arrest or interrogation, people [can] say there’s nothing there. »

Solidarity on paper

Protests in China were more subdued on Tuesday, with additional police deployed on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai and university students sent home to quell activism on their campuses.

Meanwhile, a major paper manufacturer in China had to dispel the rumors that it banned the sale of A4 paper to prevent protesters from using it to share their message.

Hundreds of people gathered outside at night. Some are holding blank white sheets of paper.
Chinese cities have deployed additional police this week to try to break up protests. Here protesters are seen in Beijing on Sunday. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Censors were also frantically eliminating mentions of the protests on social media platforms, although the appearance of a white paper at rallies in different cities suggests that the act of defiance had spread faster than Chinese authorities did. could contain it.

“That kind of solidarity is the kind of thing that is likely to put the government on high alert,” Clark said. « Perhaps even more than the protests themselves. »


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