Blank paper becomes symbol of defiance in protests against China’s Covid-19 curbs

Holding up blank sheets of paper in silent protest is a tactic used in part to evade censorship or arrest. PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI - Chinese protesters have turned to blank sheets of paper to express their anger over Covid-19 restrictions in a rare, widespread outpouring of public dissent that has gone beyond social media to some of China’s streets and top universities.

Images and videos circulated online showed students at universities in cities including Nanjing and Beijing holding up blank sheets of paper in silent protest, a tactic used in part to evade censorship or arrest.

China is adhering to its tough zero-Covid-19 policy even while much of the world tries to coexist with the coronavirus.

The latest wave of anger was triggered by an apartment fire that killed 10 people last Thursday in Urumqi, capital of the far western Xinjiang region, where some people had been locked down for as long as 100 days, fuelling speculation that Covid-19 lockdown measures may have impeded residents’ escape.

In Shanghai, a crowd that started gathering late on Saturday to hold a candlelight vigil for the Urumqi victims held up blank sheets of paper, according to witnesses and videos.

One widely shared video said to be from Saturday, which could not be independently verified, showed a lone woman standing on the steps of the Communication University of China in the eastern city of Nanjing with a piece of paper, before an unidentified man walked into the scene and snatched it away.

Other images showed dozens of people subsequently taking to the university’s steps with blank sheets of paper, illuminated against the night sky by torchlights from their mobile phones.

A man could later be seen chiding the crowd for their protest. “One day you’ll pay for everything you did today,” he said, in videos seen by Reuters. “The state will also have to pay the price for what it has done,” people in the crowd shouted back.

Widespread in-person protests are rare in China, where room for dissent has been all but eliminated under President Xi Jinping, forcing citizens to vent mostly on social media where they play cat-and-mouse games with censors.

Similar sheets of paper could be seen held by people gathering on the grounds of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University to sing the Chinese national anthem on Sunday.

Protesters were advised to bring a sheet of white paper to at least one planned demonstration, according to tips being shared in chat groups seen by Reuters.

Activists in Hong Kong also raised blank sheets of white paper in protest to avoid slogans banned under the city’s national security law, which was imposed after massive and sometimes violent protests the previous year. Demonstrators in Moscow have also used them this year to protest against Russia’s war with Ukraine.

One Beijing resident surnamed Wang, who joined his neighbours on Saturday in pressuring the local authorities to release his apartment from lockdown, described his sadness at hearing about “secondary disasters” involving the Covid-19 policy.

He was referring to incidents in China which provoked anger on social media, including a pregnant woman who miscarried after being refused entry to a Xi’an hospital in January, the deadly crash of a bus in Guizhou ferrying people being quarantined, and a young boy in Lanzhou who died from gas poisoning while under lockdown.

“Any of that could have happened to me or my wife,” he told Reuters.

Several Internet users showed solidarity by posting blank white squares or photos of themselves holding blank sheets of paper on their WeChat timelines or on Weibo.

By Sunday morning, the hashtag “white paper exercise” was blocked on Weibo, prompting users to lament the censorship. “If you fear a blank sheet of paper, you are weak inside,” one Weibo user posted. REUTERS

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