Word(s) of the Week: “White-haired Movement” (白发运动, Báifà Yùndòng)

The “White-haired Movement” (白发运动, Báifà Yùndòng) refers to protests led by elderly and retired workers in Wuhan and Dalian in February 2023, and in Guangzhou in January 2023. The protesters were objecting to medical insurance reforms, proposed by cash-strapped local governments, that would transfer contributions to “personal health accounts” (used by individuals to pay for doctors’ visits and medications) to a state-controlled outpatient insurance fund. Given that the outpatient insurance fund features higher deductibles and lower coverage, many retirees feared that it would result in steep cuts to their medical benefits, despite attempts by dozens of cities to tout the benefits of the reforms. As one protester in Wuhan told the Financial Times, “This is robbery. […] The government wants to use my money to subsidise others without my permission.” 

An initial demonstration on February 8 in Wuhan was largely peaceful: the elderly and retired protesters shouted slogans, sang “The Internationale,” and promised that they would return a week later if Wuhan authorities did not address their concerns about the reforms. And as promised, on February 15—just weeks before the opening of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) legislative session in Beijing—thousands of older protesters filled Wuhan’s streets, gathering at Zhongshan Park and Wuhan Union Hospital. This time, the official response was less muted: a metro station near a protest site was shut down, shoving matches broke out between police and protesters, and some protesters who tried to escape by climbing barricades were pulled back by uniformed police officers. A second retiree-led protest on the same day in the northeastern port city of Dalian was likewise heavily policed. 

Reports of the protests in Wuhan and Dalian were heavily censored online. A China Digital Times analysis found that many related hashtags were banned on Weibo, and attempts to search for them yielded error messages such as “Based on relevant laws, regulations, and policies, this topic cannot be displayed” or “Sorry, no relevant results were found.” The banned hashtags included #Wuhan Medical Insurance (#武汉医保), #Wuhan Zhongshan Park (#武汉中山公园), #Wuhan Medical Insurance Reform (#武汉医保改革), #Wuhan Medical Insurance Reform Major Adjustment (#武汉医保改革重大调整), and #Is There a Compensation Plan for Shrinking Balances in Medical Insurance Personal Accounts? (#医保个人账户缩水能不能有补偿方案).

Despite strict censorship, netizens found ways to express support for this rare example of activism by senior citizens and retirees. The protests in Wuhan and Dalian were dubbed the White-haired Movement,” a nod to the term “White-paper Movement” (白纸运动, Báizhǐ Yùndòng), which referred to the blank white sheets of A4 paper displayed during the spontaneous mass demonstrations that broke out in numerous Chinese cities during November and December 2022. Those earlier demonstrations, primarily led by young people, were touched off by a fire that killed at least ten residents of a locked-down building in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Initial demonstrations of mourning escalated into a broader protest movement in opposition to draconian COVID controls and ongoing political repression. Hundreds of young protesters were arrested, and many remain in detention as of March 2023. 

Whether the “White-haired Movement” can evolve into a longer-term movement remains to be seen, yet it is undeniable that China’s elderly population represents a large and powerful block with legitimate rights and concerns, and a growing willingness to defend those rights and concerns. As of 2020, China had two hundred million people aged 65 and above, accounting for 13.5 percent of the nation’s population. The United Nations projects that by 2050, there will be 366 million older Chinese adults, making up 26 percent of the population. It is only natural that this growing cohort, after a lifetime of working to build “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” would take a strong interest in government policies on retirement, medical benefits, later-life care, and other salient issues. Having been promised that the government would care for them in their old age, expectations are high. As one older protester in Wuhan told The New York Times, he resents being asked to shoulder the burden of cuts to his medical insurance: The socialist country today was created by us, the older generation.”

One recent Weibo comment draws a connection between the burdens placed on the elderly in Wuhan during the three pandemic years, and their unusual willingness to fight back now: “Elderly people in Wuhan survived the first round of COVID. Then they survived three more years of interminable testing and pandemic measures. Then they survived several months of the peak COVID surge before, during, and after the Lunar New Year. And now they have turned from fighting the pandemic to protesting.

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