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Blank sheets of paper become symbol of defiance in China protests

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.

November 28, 2022
28 November 2022

SHANGHAI/BEIJING, Nov 27 (Reuters) – 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 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 on Thursday in Urumqi, a far western city
where some people had been locked down for as long as 100 days,
fueling speculation that COVID 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 walks into the scene and snatches it away.

Other images showed dozens of other people subsequently
taking to the university’s steps with blank sheets of
paper,illuminated against the night sky by flashlights 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 mostly to vent 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.

At the height of the Hong Kong protests in 2020, activists
there also raised blank sheets of white paper to protest to
avoid slogans banned under the national security law.
Demonstrators in Moscow have also used them this year to protest
Russia’s war with Ukraine.

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

Wang was referring to incidents in China which provoked
anger on social media, including a pregnant woman who miscarried
after being refused entry to a Xian 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.
(Reporting by Brenda Goh, Martin Pollard and Yew Lun Tian;
Editing by Kim Coghill)

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