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The White Paper Revolution

China’s population has learned that its voice has real power.

· 13 min read
The White Paper Revolution
Protesters march along a street during a rally for the victims of a deadly fire as well as a protest against China's harsh Covid-19 restrictions in Beijing on November 28, 2022. Getty

Xi Jinping regularly warns of the potential for unpredictable “black swan” events in China’s near future. He mentions it so frequently that it’s obvious he enjoys using the phrase. So, on September 5th, 2021, when an actual black swan flew into Tiananmen Square, those of a superstitious bent grew uneasy. There it was, eschewing grass and water in favour of stark symbolism, strutting for cameras on the very site of the proclamation of the People’s Republic, seven decades prior. What could it mean?

Chinese history is littered with omens and portents. The death of Mao Zedong was preceded by an earthquake in Tangshan that killed 300,000. The death of Deng Xiaoping was followed by a total eclipse in parts of northern China. On May 13th, 1989, as the Tiananmen Square protest movement picked up pace, a comet was seen streaking through the heavens over the Forbidden City. For some students the sight augured disaster; for others it suggested the end of an era. In the light of recent events, we might imagine that Tiananmen’s black swan was a mistaken harbinger, accidentally dispatched a whole year early.

It would be hard to overstate the significance of the “White Paper Revolution” of November–December 2022. For the first time, the Chinese Communist Party actually seems to have submitted to the will of the people. For three long years, the authorities tried to stamp out SARS-CoV-2—a vain attempt to defeat nature. Long after the rest of the world had learned to live with COVID, Xi pushed on, blind to reality and deaf to criticism, seeking a victory that he imagined would legitimise his authoritarian model in the eyes of all nations. But when domestic fury passed a certain point, he panicked (China’s leaders know well their country’s history of popular uprisings and subsequent regime change).

This is also the first time we have seen serious mass opposition to Xi’s Stalinist dominion. The valiant Peng Lifa may have dared to challenge Xi publicly, but never before have entire crowds called for his removal. At the Shanghai vigil on November 26th, protesters began by chanting “Serve the people!” (the old CCP motto repurposed as accusation). Soon they dared to go further, with demands to “Apologise!” An unidentified woman was the first to shout “Xi Jinping, step down!”—the greatest of blasphemies, like a lone freethinker challenging Biblical orthodoxy in 15th-century Spain. Perhaps the crowd had liberated her, drawing up to the surface hidden heresies. I imagine her suddenly possessed by a deadly exhilaration: one terrible, vertigo-inducing moment in which she found herself willing to jeopardise everything.

After the initial shocked silence, a strident male voice was heard. “Gong chan dang [Communist Party]!” he roared. “Xia tai [step down]!” the crowd answered. And then: “Xi Jinping!” The spell was broken. “Xia tai!” Four times they repeated this call-and-response. Each time the volume increased, and with it a palpable sense of pleasure. Before long they were freely cursing China’s President. We can find no precedent for this in 73 years of Party rule. Even at Tiananmen Square in 1989, those who defaced Mao Zedong’s portrait were piously given up to the authorities by protesters (and then imprisoned, where one of them was tortured until he lost his mind). The Shanghai police were stunned, and it was hours before they roused themselves to act: scattering protesters, beating and arresting some.

The man who had led the chant was a 27-year-old bartender going by “Wang.” Afterwards, he explained to a Western journalist that he’d been feeling powerless under Zero-COVID and that there was no point in continuing to live. But his actions had made him euphoric. The next day, he received a message from his mother. She told him how proud she was. Later that afternoon, he was taken from his workplace and bundled into a police van. No reason was given for his arrest, no paperwork was provided, and nothing has been heard from him since.

Many demonstrators were hunted down over the next few days, although few will be in Wang’s kind of trouble. Police thugs swarmed onto the Shanghai subway to check mobile phones and trekked from door to door in Xinjiang. Those who had installed Twitter or Telegram were considered guilty. Their blood was drawn, their irises scanned. They were subjected to body cavity searches.

Not all protests mentioned Xi by name, but the spirit of revolt was the same everywhere. “We don’t want to be subjects!” they shouted in Beijing. “We don’t want emperors!” they shouted in Chengdu. In the past, certain mainlanders have explained to me that it’s far more important to go on living than to be free; that the reverse is an exclusively Western idea. I never believed this to be the case, and sure enough, protesters in Chengdu were heard to chant “Better dead than unfree!”

Others resorted to lines from the national anthem: “Arise, arise!” This is a dangerous detail for the CCP, hinting that the nationalism it so carelessly cultivated is beginning to wriggle out of its control. At the heart of all Chinese indoctrination since 1989 has been the idea that love for one’s country is tightly chained to love for the Party. But if love for one’s country can actually be used to rebuke the Party, then the two are no longer one. Certainly, a deep sense of national responsibility runs through this movement. Several participants have described their involvement as “My duty” (the same two words used to name those revolutionary new Telegram groups established by overseas Chinese). The Communist Party fed and reared this nationalism. Now the creature is grown, and if it turns against its master, we will see the end of a dynasty.

Of course, safeguards were set in place long ago to prevent this from happening. In Beijing, we saw the Party’s mind control system kicking in. Chinese are indoctrinated from an early age with the idea that mysterious Western elements are forever trying to subvert the Party’s grand historical mission. Any number of unrelated phenomena can be blamed on this vague source. One individual recalled his education, and immediately the relevant program began running—he complained to the crowd that “foreign forces” were manipulating everyone. But he was shouted down: “Where are these foreign forces?” This notion of shadowy Westerners hidden in their midst bears more than a little resemblance to old Puritan ideas. In Salem in the 1690s, witches and their infernal familiars ran wild, hiding behind every tree, never directly seen by anyone, but somehow responsible for all the community’s ills.

Happily, his interlocutors were able to resist their programming. They appealed to logic: “Was it foreign forces who started the fire in Xinjiang? Was the Guizhou bus overturned by foreign forces? Was everyone told to come here by foreign forces? We can’t even access foreign internet—how are foreign forces meant to be communicating with us?” But they also subverted the accusation, turning it into a wry stab at the Party. “These foreign forces you are talking about—are they Marx and Engels? Is it Stalin? Is it Lenin?”

The movement has been dubbed a “White Paper Revolution,” named for the sheets of blank paper held up at vigils. A comment on the CCP’s pervasive censorship, they also echo the actions of a Soviet-era dissident. But mainlanders have told me that the blank squares also make it easy for netizens to superimpose their own text on vigil photos. Students at Tsinghua University, meanwhile, held signs showing one of the Friedmann equations, which refer to the constant and eternal expansion of the universe. The implicit message: opening up is necessary. Creativity proliferates. On social media, a line from a speech by Xi Jinping is being reappropriated to show support for the movement: “Now the Chinese people have organised and no one should mess with them.” This poses a problem for China’s dull-witted censors. Do they delete the words of the Great Leader, or do they allow dissent?

But in other ways, protesters have been less smart. Many took precautions when joining vigils, cognisant of China’s vast surveillance apparatus. “Zhang” wore goggles and a balaclava. He hid in the bushes when he thought there was a chance police may be tailing him and changed into a new coat before emerging. The following day, to Zhang’s great surprise, the police arrived at his house. It’s simply not enough to guard yourself against facial recognition tech—as soon as you enter the vicinity of a camera, tiny IMSI-catchers nestled behind it will coax your phone to connect. Anyone carrying a smartphone can be caught.

For years, citizens have dumbly welcomed the Party’s creation of AI-powered “safe cities,” believing the state propaganda that sold them as a crime-fighting measure. The White Paper Revolution has brought home the enormity of their error. It’s the same mistake made by all those who opposed the Hong Kong protests of 2019. Back then, Beijing’s proposed extradition law would have allowed authorities to remove anyone at all from Hong Kong to the mainland for detention and torture. There was never safety to be found in living a good life, in following the law—the Communist Party occupies a lofty realm far above the law. As Lenin said, at the very beginning of this hundred-year nightmare, “the revolutionary rule of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence—rule that is unrestricted by any laws.” All Chinese citizens are potential criminals, eternally at the mercy of Beijing and its capricious dictates.

Hongkongers saw this long ago. But most mainlanders led a blind, coddled existence. They were not Uyghurs; they were not Christians; they were not Falun Gong: why should they worry? They lived unmolested by the Party, so long as they lived only to make money. Now the totalitarian state has forced itself into their lives and into their homes. Such people have become a cliché, an all-too-predictable embodiment of those famous old lines from Niemöller. (“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out…” etc.)

For many, the protests have been solely a complaint about Zero-COVID. At the same time, I’ve been surprised by how frequently demonstrators call for democracy, free speech, rule of law, the removal of the Party, and sometimes—though less often—the removal of Xi Jinping. I saw it with my own eyes when I joined a vigil in Sheffield, in the United Kingdom. Amid a sea of candles and white papers, one mainlander casually taped anti-Xi posters to the paving stones—a sight I did not expect to see, and one I am unlikely to forget. She wore no mask. “Aren’t you scared of spies?” I asked. “No,” she said. Along with the cowards, the brainwashed automatons, and those who turn a blind eye to genocide, China produces tremendous examples of diamond-hard courage, forged by life under a totalitarian regime.

Protesters hold white signs in protest of the Chinese Government on November 28, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. Getty

This is also true of the movement’s most significant figures. On November 22nd, when workers began rioting at the Zhengzhou Foxconn factory, inspiration came to Li, a 30-year-old Chinese painter living in Italy. Li had spent years posting on Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) about social injustice. As his reputation grew, netizens would send him information and footage that they feared to post on their own accounts. This continued until February of this year, when the story broke of a trafficking victim found chained to a shed in rural China. She had been forced to give birth to eight children. There followed a wave of online outrage and a renewed focus on human trafficking, during which somebody asked Li to post a submission about their missing sister, worrying that she might have suffered the same fate. The post was viewed thousands of times. The Party, with its characteristic horror of civil society, shut down Li’s account. He simply opened another, and when that was banned, he opened another. Li worked his way through 52 accounts. But when he saw Beijing’s censorship machine erasing footage from Zhengzhou, he began saving all the videos he could find and uploading them instead to Twitter—untouchable even for the Party.

Soon, of course, the protests spread across China, fuelled by anger at multiple deaths in a Xinjiang lockdown fire. Li’s account, “Teacher Li is not your teacher” (@whyyoutouzhele) was quickly flooded with video submissions. At the peak of the protests, on the evening of November 27th, he claims that he was receiving dozens of submissions per second. Over the course of a single month, his posts were viewed more than a billion times. Today, “Teacher Li” has become a focal point for the blossoming White Paper Revolution; a vital, never-ceasing fulcrum for the movement. Journalist Zeyi Yang calls him a “one-person newsroom”—he verifies footage, compiles multiple short clips into single videos, adds subtitles, blocks personal account information. “I sleep for about five hours,” Li says, “and I’m focusing on [Twitter] for the rest of the day … I have gradually become an anchor sitting in a TV studio, getting endless information from reporters on the scene all over the country.” These reporters are just ordinary people, and Li himself is the archetypal citizen journalist with no formal training.

The Party has already sent police to his parents’ home back in China. “Of course,” he says, “I’m afraid that one day a car is going to run toward me when I’m crossing the road and fake a traffic accident or something.” In that event, he has arranged for another person to take over the account. But this movement has also liberated him—specifically that first beautiful moment of transgression in Shanghai:

When they shouted out “Xi Jinping step down,” I suddenly felt it didn’t matter any more. I can report this thing. I can type these words. If they aren’t afraid to say it, then I’m also not afraid to type it. That’s it. You know what these characters means when they are typed out. It’s completely different [from other words]. At that moment, I suddenly felt like I’m dead, I’m alive, I’m liberated, and I’m aggrieved, all at the same time. It was a very, very complicated feeling.

In all, more than 50 universities have seen student-organised protests, and there are many more outside China. The police are cracking down with all the subtlety we might expect. In Chengdu, they used a car with a signal jammer, switching off not only phone reception and the Internet, but even street lamps and decorative lights on trees. The crowd was plunged into darkness and confusion, the road strewn with trampled flowers, and officers ran around arresting people at random.

At the highest level, however, authorities have certainly not acted according to character. A variety of relaxations were suddenly announced to China’s iron Zero-COVID policy. As recently as late November, the government had still been painting SARS-CoV-2 as an enormous, plague-like threat to the populace. This ended abruptly. “Most Chinese people are no longer afraid of being infected,” said Hu Xijin, erstwhile editor of state mouthpiece the Global Times, where he typically gave the Chinese people instructions on how to feel in the guise of a report on their existing feelings.

Some people on the ground have since reported no changes. “The lifting of restrictions doesn’t mean we aren’t taking preventative measures,” stated the local government in Guangzhou, where people were seen waiting in long queues to pay for nucleic acid tests. In certain parts of Xinjiang, “opening up” just meant that people were permitted to leave their house for two hours a day to stock up on supplies. But my own contacts tell me that in their cities the testing—the endless, Sisyphean testing—has indeed come to an end. Those who develop only mild symptoms are now allowed to recover at home (previously they were packed into filthy quarantine centres to wait for weeks under the glare of 24-hour lights). Smartphone apps have stopped monitoring travel, and lockdowns will apparently now be limited to buildings rather than districts and cities.

As is always the case in a totalitarian state, the leaders had little sense of the true mood of the people. For them, these protests came from nowhere. And so it was decided that a popular revolution must be avoided at all costs, including the cost of an embarrassing climbdown. The true cost to the Party will prove to be far greater than that. We are faced with an implicit acknowledgement that Xi Jinping’s flagship policy was a failure. He was hellbent on proving that “China” (i.e., the CCP) can defeat the virus, showing the world and the Chinese people the competence of an authoritarian system. In the end, he has demonstrated only incompetence.

More importantly, China’s population has learned that its voice has real power. No one can fail to link such dramatic and unprecedented social disturbance with such a sudden policy reversal, and indeed, many are now sharing the message “Thank you, brave young people” on social media platforms. The common attitude of defeatism that I wrote about so recently—the helplessness that “Wang” felt—may be coming to an end. Sure enough, protests have continued throughout December, now spreading out to new regions: Qinghai, Fujian, etc. The White Paper Revolution was only the beginning.

But for the immediate future, we must turn our attention to the consequences of China’s swift exit from Zero-COVID. The country is opening up right in the middle of winter, when infections were always going to be highest. In January, the population will begin moving around in larger numbers than at any other time of year, as everyone travels home to celebrate the Lunar New Year. This movement carried the virus far and wide three years ago, kickstarting the pandemic, and now it will ensure that the less dangerous but far-more-contagious Omicron strain reaches every last corner of China. All citizens will catch it. And they are hardly prepared. In November, the New York Times reported that, “About 90 percent of China’s total population is fully vaccinated, but among those 80 and older, the number is much lower—65.8 percent are fully vaccinated, and only 40 percent have received a booster.” The population as a whole will have uniquely poor COVID immunity, precisely because of Zero-COVID and those relentless lockdowns.

Many are going to fall ill. Many are going to die. On December 10th, the Beijing Emergency Medical Centre reported that emergency requests had jumped from an average of 5,000 a day to 30,000 a day. ICU beds are in short supply—fewer than four per 100,000 people. In all likelihood, the Party’s grim quarantine facilities will soon serve as makeshift hospitals. There will be shortages of doctors and nurses. And Xi Jinping will be personally responsible for all human suffering that follows: the population is unprotected because of a policy that he pursued, fatuously, for his own ends.

In the arena of politics, however, China’s future remains uncertain, no matter what black swans or comets may portend. It is the Chinese people who will have to decide what happens next. In this sense, those blank sheets of paper were more fitting than any traditional omen. Like the netizens who add their own text to protest photos, dreaming up new slogans to fill in the blank squares, China’s young people will take this White Paper Revolution, on which they will write the next chapter in the nation’s history.

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