The spontaneous protests that swept China last week were remarkable for a number of reasons, among them their diversity. While all the demonstrations were loosely tied together by mourning the loss of at least 10 people in an Urumqi fire and opposing certain aspects of China’s zero-COVID policy, the demographics of the protests and their political aims varied widely from city to city. That diversity was captured in the slogans chanted by the gathered crowds—some, expressions of mourning; others, explicitly anti-regime. CDT has selected five slogans that highlight the intellectual and political outlines of the protests, and has delved into the fates of the protestors believed to have coined those specific phrases.
1. “Long live the people, may the departed rest in peace!”
On November 26, a female student stood on the steps of the Communication University of China, Nanjing, and held up a blank sheet of A4 paper in a silent protest against censorship of news about the Urumqi fire. A video that went viral showed an unidentified person confiscating the blank sheet of paper. Later that evening, dozens of students gathered on the same steps, many holding white sheets of paper, to sing the national anthem and chant “Long live the people, may the departed rest in peace!” and other slogans.
Mourning can quickly turn political, as official sensitivity around the recent death of Jiang Zemin displayed. The death of COVID whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang provides another salient example. On the evening of his passing on February 7, 2020, criticism of the central government surpassed anger directed towards local governments, a rare exception to an axiom of Chinese politics: that there is more trust in and satisfaction with the central government than local governments. In 1989, mourning Hu Yaobang’s death gave students upset with the status quo an opportunity to further their demands for increased press freedom. Wary of the potential volatility of collective mourning, school officials moved to disband the recent protests, with one unidentified man threatening those present, “One day you’ll pay for everything you did today.” The crowd jeered, “The state will also have to pay the price for what it has done,” in response. And so the “A4 Revolution” was born.
In the days that followed, protesters across China brandished blank A4 paper as an unwritten indictment against zero-COVID and, in some cases, the state that enforced it. Some protestors told The New York Times that the blank pages were inspired by an old Soviet joke about a dissident passing out blank leaflets: when questioned by the police about the lack of text, the dissent says “everyone knows” what is written there. That sentiment was echoed on Twitter by feminist activist Chao Xu, who wrote: “Don’t ask who incited it, because it was all of us. What’s written on those blank papers is the thing you fear the most.”
Blank paper has often been deployed in protest by those living under authoritarian regimes across the globe, with other recent examples including Hong Kong and Russia. The stock price of a top Chinese stationery retailer fell after the online spread of a press release announcing an immediate embargo on the sale of white paper to “prevent outlaws from hoarding a large amount of A4 white paper and using it for illegal subversive activities.” The company has since claimed that the announcement was fabricated, but Weibo users noted that Beijing and Shanghai residents were, in fact, barred from purchasing white paper from the retailer on Taobao.
2. “Democracy and rule of law, freedom of expression!”
On November 27, a solitary student held up a blank sheet of paper in front of a student canteen at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Xi Jinping’s alma mater. After the student was harassed by unidentified men, a host of students, many also brandishing blank paper, gathered with her in solidarity and chanted, “Democracy and rule of law, and freedom of expression!”:
While some state organs and Party sympathizers have tried to frame the protests as a product of shadowy “foreign forces,” Xi Jinping himself reportedly focused on “frustrated” students. Students have much to be frustrated about: one in five urban youth are unemployed and Tsinghua students are among the many who have been subject to interminable rounds of COVID testing and campus lockdowns. Yet the call for democracy, rule of law, and freedom of expression suggests a departure from narrow discontent over material conditions. Students have been among those at the center of calls for democracy in China since the 1919 May Fourth Movement. In 2021, the Party made a concerted propaganda push to promote “whole-process people’s democracy,” which boasts few of the traditional democratic trappings such as free elections. The Tsinghua protest indicates that the Party’s vision of democracy may be unpalatable to some of China’s youth.
Tsinghua responded to the protests by instructing students that they were free to return home, and organized buses to take them to the airport or train station. Dali Yang told the AP that the measures were an effort to “defuse the situation.” The school’s deputy Party secretary made a verbal promise that students who participated in the protests would not get into trouble.
3. “We want freedom, not COVID tests! We want freedom, not lockdowns!”
On the night of November 27, Beijing residents gathered near Liangma Bridge and began chanting, “We want freedom, not COVID tests! We want freedom, not lockdowns!” The slogans were clearly inspired by October’s Sitong Bridge protest.
On October 13, the eve of the 20th Party Congress, a person disguised as a construction worker hung two banners from Beijing’s busy Sitong Bridge. The banners were emblazoned with the slogans “We want food, not COVID tests,” and “We want freedom, not lockdowns,” among other demands. The man was immediately arrested and his protest was subject to exceptionally harsh censorship online. The government even appeared to enlist Apple to restrict the iPhone Airdrop function after it was used to share information about the protest with subway passengers in various Chinese cities. The reappearance of the Sitong Bridge slogans indicates that those efforts at censorship were not completely successful.
Little is known about the man behind the October protest, and even his identity has not been confirmed. Many believe that the protester was Peng Lifa, who wrote under the pen name Peng Zaizhou. (The name is a reference to the traditional political saying, “Water may keep the boat afloat, but may also overturn it,” which asserts the masses’ ability to bolster or take down regimes.) He is believed to be 48 years old. Peng’s protest was carefully prepared: before hanging the banners from Sitong Bridge, he published a 23-page document titled, “A Toolkit for the Removal Of Xi Jinping,” and sent tweets calling for a general strike.
One of the capital’s top security officials, Beijing’s police chief, personally supervised the effort to disperse the Liangma Bridge protest. Journalists were shoed away from the scene.
4. “We want freedom of speech, we want to remember history!”
On the evening of November 27, protestors in Chengdu demanded freedom of speech and the right to recall their own history:
The battle over how to remember China’s coronavirus experience began nearly as soon as the Wuhan lockdown ended. Standing at the podium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing room, MoFA spokesperson Hua Chunying declared: “The history of the combat against the pandemic should not be tainted by lies and misleading information; it should be recorded with the correct collective memory of all mankind.”
The Party keeps a tight grip on how China’s story is told, branding heterodox representations of the past as “historical nihilism.” In a major 2021 resolution on history, the Party glossed over the traumas of the past to paint a glorious picture of the future. Online, netizens often use historical analogies to level oblique criticisms at the government. After Hu Jintao was abruptly removed from the 20th Party Congress, many shared an article from an obscure history journal in an apparent criticism of Xi Jinping—it was soon censored.
The Chengdu protestors also adopted the slogan “give me freedom or give me death.” The iconic Tiananmen slogan, inspired by Patrick Henry’s revolutionary oration, has become a staple of anti-COVID sentiment, cropping up on Beijing testing booths and being shouted by a man under lockdown in Chongqing earlier in November.
5. “Down with Xi Jinping! Down with the Communist Party! We don’t want a dictator for life!”
The most radical slogan captured on tape was shouted on Urumqi Road in Shanghai on the evening of the 26th:
Eva Rammeloo interviewed the man who led the chants of “Down with Xi Jinping” for The Economist’s 1843 Magazine. In the interview, the 27-year-old bartender—who was participating in his first-ever protest—shared his motive for leading the most radical chant of the movement:
“We want our basic human rights as citizens,” said Wang. “I’ve been feeling a strong sense of powerlessness lately, that there is no point in living. This is a philosophical idea, but the feeling is caused by the Communist Party.”
[…] The young bartender who led the chants against Xi Jinping knows what kind of change he wants. “We want our country to stop being a one-party dictatorship,” said Wang. At around 4am on Sunday he reached home, euphoric. “If my speech was useful, then I am one step closer to being an ideal Chinese,” he wrote in a message on social media.
[…] When police officers came into the bar later that day, Wang still felt like a proud Chinese citizen. The officers were less gentle than those who watched the demonstrations on Saturday night: they put Wang in handcuffs and shoved him into a van. There was no official paperwork for his arrest, a friend of Wang’s told me later that night. After three days, there is still no trace of the young man who stood up. [Source]
Protesters in Shanghai also shouted, “Fuck zero-COVID,” as well as slogans seemingly inspired by Peng Lifa: “We want democracy, not dictatorship. Elections, not rulers.” Protestors also broke into a rendition of “Do You Hear The People Sing,” the Les Misérables theme song that has been censored in China since the 2019 Hong Kong protests.
Police responded with force. AP’s Dake Kang and Huizhong Wu reported on the police crackdown and one of their own experiences in police custody:
Shortly after 3 a.m., police swung into action.
The clearance operation began when officers in black arrived, moving between the two vigils and cutting the crowd in two, according to two protesters.
Police lined up in formation, locked arms by the dozen and marched toward protesters to push them off Urumqi road, demonstrators said.
Some officers charged, seizing individuals and sending others fleeing. Video seen by AP showed police pushing and tackling protesters. Two witnesses said police also used pepper spray.
[…] At around 10:30 p.m. Sunday, about 30 officers in black charged people at an Urumqi Middle Road intersection, sending them fleeing. An AP journalist and others were tackled and hit repeatedly on their heads by police using their hands.
The journalist and four others were put in a police van and taken to a station in northern Shanghai. When one female detainee said she had only been walking on the road, an officer told her: “Shut up.”
At the station, the journalist saw 16 other detainees, mostly in their 20s. Some were injured, including a man with bloodied jeans and a gash above an eye.
Police confiscated phones and demanded passwords. Detainees were taken to interrogation rooms, locked to metal chairs and questioned individually.
When police learned the journalist’s identity, he was released after two hours, without questioning or being pressed for his phone’s password. [Source]