In order to ‘prevent and control the pandemic’, all regions have ‘adjusted’ the winter vacation time and have notified holidays in advance. Special arrangements have been made to transport students to their homes.
Holding high an A4 white paper in her hands, a young lady protester tells the crowd with teary eyes, choked yet indignant voice: “After so many days of lockdown, a man-made disaster (人祸) happened. People witnessed that fire brigades were not able to enter [the premises], water barely reached the windows [of the building]! And the government proclaimed that the gate [of the building] was open, it was the residents who didn’t escape on their own! A day after the Korean stampede, there were so many reports in each and every media. But is there any official report (官方报道) in our media about the deaths of our people and citizens in this disaster? Has it been reported? Not at all! All are lies! All are silent (全都是沉默)! All are quiet (全都是静默)! Therefore, we started a white paper mourning movement. Did we say anything on it? Nothing! All the resentment is in our heart! All the condolences are in our heart!”
This emotional outburst of a protester is perhaps the best depiction of the whole sequence of events leading to the “White Paper Revolution” and the intent behind it. The protester was referring to fatalities caused by a fire incident in a high-rise building in Urumqi, Xinjiang that has been under strict Covid lockdown since August this year. The seething anger of the people against the draconian Covid restrictions and their economic woes have been sporadically exploding in various regions of China.
The first salvo of defiance was fired by the residents of Guangdong’s Haizhu district on 15 November, when they took to the streets, smashed lockdown barriers and clashed with the police. A few days later a video of a Chongqing resident, dubbed as “superman brother” (超人哥) called on the local government to admit its mistakes and not to make a fuss over the “little influenza” (小感冒). In defiance, he shouted “take my liberty, give me death” (不自由毋宁死). In Henan’s Zhengzhou, since mid-October, Foxconn’s iPhone assembly employees have been at loggerheads with their employer on the question of wages and lockdown restrictions. Many jumped off the walls and travelled long distances on foot to their respective hometowns, only to be blocked by the “big whites” (大白) at various check points. On 23 November, they clashed with the “big whites” once again and both sides sustained injuries.
The Urumqi incident acted as a catalyst and people in various cities, especially university students in Chengdu, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Xi’an, and Qingdao displayed defiance rarely seen in China. Demonstrators reiterated the slogans put by Peng Zaizhou (real name Peng Lifa) on the two large white banners he hung from the Sitong Bridge in the heart of Beijing, just three days before inauguration of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The slogans read: “No to PCR testing, yes to subsistence. No to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to lies, yes to dignity. No to Cultural Revolution, yes to reform. No to great leader, yes to voting. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen!” Peng’s bold and defiant move emboldened the protestors to an extent demanding “Xi Jinping step down! CPC step down!” on 24 November, at Middle Urumqi Road in Shanghai. In Tsinghua University, the alma mater of Xi Jinping, students shouted “Democracy! (民主) Rule of law! (法制) Freedom of expression! (表达自由)” etc., slogans. Notwithstanding the tightly controlled censorship, the movement managed to spread on the Internet and was widely covered by foreign media.
Though the protests were spontaneous, but their scope and scale were limited to the big cities. Though they were in opposition to the tough “dynamic Covid zero” policy of the party-state, however, their roots run deeper and demonstrate a certain political appeal. Obviously, the economic slump, real estate bubble bust, mortgage crisis, closure of small businesses, growing social inequalities, unemployment amongst the youth, and increasingly inward looking policies in the new era are some other triggers.
As regards China’s response, there is no mention of the protests in official media. Nonetheless, it could be discerned from the plenary session of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC) of the CPC, held on 28 November that there has been extensive discussion on the issue and the party is contemplating a way out from its present predicament. The CPLAC has squarely blamed it on the “infiltration and destructive activities of hostile forces” (敌对势力渗透破坏活动) and declared that the political and legal organs of the CPC “should resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order (打击扰乱社会秩序的违法犯罪行为) in accordance with the law”. The statement pledged to take strong measures to implement the spirit of the 20th National Congress of the CPC and resolutely safeguard national security and social stability. The crackdown and rounding up of the protesters have been initiated, and the police has been checking mobile phones of passengers for any VPN and foreign apps or any objectionable content on their devices.
Two, in order to “prevent and control the pandemic” (防控疫情), all regions have “adjusted” (调整) the winter vacation time and have notified holidays in advance. In some cases, special arrangements have been made to transport students to their homes. The CPC is wary of university students who have been at the forefront of movements such as the May Fourth of 1919 and Tian’anmen of 1989.
Three, stringent lockdowns have been eased up, starting with some areas in Urumqi, followed by Guangzhou, Kunming and Beijing’s Chaoyang district. On 30 November, during a symposium held at the National Health and Medical Commission, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan avoided mentioning “dynamic Covid zero” (动态清零), often reiterated in official documents and speeches, rather she talked about “low pathogenicity” (致病性的减弱) and “low lethality” (低致命性) of the Omicron virus. This could be considered as a course correction and a face-saving move, especially when you have a wolf by its ears. It was in this context that Sun proposed “taking small steps without coming to a halt” (走小步不停步), albeit she still harped about “major positive results China have achieved” in epidemic prevention and control in the last three years. Sun Chunlan has become synonymous with China’s stringent epidemic prevention and control. She talked tough when she was sent to Wuhan in 2020, and in Shanghai and Hainan in 2022. Xinhua, in a commentary on 1 December, also called for “swift lockdowns and swift lifting of lockdowns” (快封快解) as a new model for dealing with the pandemic.
Four, the residential committees (居委会), who, at the behest of “higher authorities” imposed stringent lockdowns and posed as “big whites”, are increasingly being blamed for the fiasco. These are the people largely held responsible for creating barriers and welding main gates of apartment buildings much to the despise of common people. Furthermore, on many occasions, these have acted like the notorious “red guards” of the “Cultural Revolution” era, forcefully entering the homes of the quarantined people and damaging their personal belongings. Nonetheless, the “big whites” have their own story to tell. Many complain that they have not been paid for months by the testing and labour companies. Worse, they have been subjected to all kinds of abuses by everyone, and have sought justice in the court of law. The insatiable desire of the Covid testing companies for exacting super profit, and low self-sufficiency of many of the provinces are part of the problem.
According to reports from Strait.com, China has invested nearly 14.7 trillion yuan in health expenses in the prevention and control of the epidemic in 2021 and 2022. A single nucleic acid test cost China around 215 million yuan a day, amounting to nearly 50 billion yuan a month. In other words, mass testing could be regarded as a means to sustain the Covid zero policy. However, in the wake of the protests, the government has started to probe testing companies. Zhang Shanshan, the daughter of Zhang Hezi, the major shareholders of Shenzhen Nuclear Gene Technology Co., Ltd. has 35 nucleic acid companies registered under her name. Netizens have started to expose the unholy nexus between the local government, testing companies and the “big whites”. Recently, many “big whites” have been rounded up and imprisoned by the police.
Finally, though Xi Jinping emerged as the helmsman of China after the conclusion of the 20th National Congress, however, the dynamic Covid zero and the protests have diminished his image. Since the CPC commands the barrel of the gun, the protests are likely to be nipped in the bud, albeit use of force resulting in bloodshed will further tarnish the image of the party-state amongst the masses. Nonetheless, seeds of dissidence have been sown and they may continue to sprout intermittently, for the protesters appeared fearless, demonstrated definite political consciousness with clear goals and adopted simple yet powerful ways to convey their message.
B.R. Deepak is Professor and Chair, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.