Wordplay, blank signs, music: How China is protesting against zero-Covid-19 policy

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BEIJING – Holding up blank pieces of paper, co-opting the national anthem, complicated wordplays. Protesters in China are devising a myriad of creative ways to voice dissent against the government and its zero-Covid policy.

Here’s how many Chinese have attempted to evade censorship to demonstrate their anger and show support for protests:

Blank signs

Protesters in multiple cities, including Beijing on Sunday, held up blank A4-sized sheets of white paper in a sign of solidarity and a nod to the lack of free speech in China. Others posted white squares on their WeChat social media profiles.

Viral photos also appeared to show students from top Chinese university Tsinghua holding up signs showing Friedmann equations – chosen for the similarity between the physicist’s name and the phrase “freed man” or “freedom”.

And after the authorities blocked more obvious keywords and place names from Internet searches, nonsensical posts comprising repeated characters with “positive” meanings went viral on the WeChat super-app and the Twitter-like Weibo, including some that simply read “right right right right right” and “good good good”.

Protesters march while holding blank white pieces of paper during a protest in Beijing, on Nov 27, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

By Monday, many of the earlier nonsense posts and references to “A4 paper” had been wiped from social sites, though similar posts continued to spread.

Social media users also turned to advanced wordplay to discuss the protests, using terms like “banana peel”, which has the same initials as President Xi Jinping’s name in Chinese, and “shrimp moss”, which sounds similar to the phrase “step down”.

Sarcasm

Some crowds over the weekend called explicitly for Mr Xi to step down, and yelled slogans like “No to Covid tests! Yes to freedom!”, referencing a banner hung up by a solo protester in Beijing just before the Communist Party Congress in October.

Others were more cautious, holding what appeared to be silent protests and offering flowers and candles to commemorate victims of a deadly fire in Xinjiang last week that prompted the latest wave of anger.

In Beijing, a crowd at the Liangma River on Sunday night shouted, “I want to do Covid tests! I want to scan my health code!”, inspiring Weibo users to post similarly sarcastic phrases.

Video clips of Mr Xi, as well as quotes from the president, have been repurposed to support mass demonstrations, including one clip of him saying: “Now the Chinese people are organised and aren’t to be trifled with.”

Music, football

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Groups in multiple locations across China sang the national anthem and the Internationale at their gatherings, pre-empting accusations by Beijing that protests were unpatriotic or instigated by foreign forces.

And one viral video that was swiftly taken down by censors purportedly showed students at a university dormitory singing the song “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” by Cantonese pop band Beyond – an ode to freedom also adopted by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong before the pandemic.

Netizens also spread memes about the ongoing World Cup in Qatar, using images of unmasked football fans to mock China’s strict zero-Covid policy.

In one widely shared video that has since been censored, a social media user overlaid audio of people screaming “Put your mask on!” and “Do a Covid test” on scenes of cheering World Cup spectators.

Jumping the firewall

International social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram are blocked by China’s virtual Great Firewall, but tech-savvy residents have been able to post information on the protests using special virtual private network (VPN) software.

To get the message out beyond China’s borders, anonymously run Twitter accounts are opening up their inboxes to video submissions from across China, while several protest livestreams have been hosted on Instagram.

And Chinese students studying abroad have organised similar demonstrations around the world, including in several North American and European cities.

Chinese students studying abroad have been organising protests against Beijing's hardcore Covid-19 curbs like this one in front of the Chinese embassy in London. PHOTO: REUTERS

In one Instagram video geolocated by Agence France-Presse, singing protestors put up a mock street sign from Shanghai’s Urumqi Road on a lamppost outside China’s consulate in Toronto, Canada. AFP

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