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Why are demonstrators in China waving blank cards?

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Wanting to send a message to the Chinese government, protesters in cities across the country carried white papers.

There was no text, symbols, or images on the pages — just blank white rectangles, intended as a metaphor for China’s censorship of dissent.

For Teng Biao, the meaning was clear.

Teng, a Chinese human rights activist, lawyer and researcher who lives in exile in the United States, told CBC News.

People hold white papers during a protest against COVID-19 measures in Shanghai on Sunday. Demonstrators in many cities also called for democratic reforms and even the resignation of President Xi Jinping. (Josh Horowitz/Reuters)

The protests, which began on Friday, came in an attempt to lift the country’s coronavirus lockdown measures. Nearly three years after the outbreak, China is still bound by a strict ‘zero COVID’ policy, entire buildings and even neighborhoods are often locked down in case of infection, and millions of people are tested daily for the coronavirus.

But some blamed the restrictions on firefighters’ inability to rescue 10 people from a deadly blaze in the northwestern city of Urumqi the night before, saying some entrances and exits to the building were blocked as part of the lockdown measures. This triggered the final outburst of rage.

A police officer orders a woman to leave while holding a protest white paper in Hong Kong on Tuesday during a memorial service for the victims of the fires in Urumqi, China. (Tyrone Sioux/Reuters)

However, the movement soon morphed into a call for more political rights: freedom of speech, democratic reforms, and even the overthrow of Chinese President Xi Jinping, in an unprecedented challenge to his leadership.

Some observers have called the protesters—and the sheets of white paper they carry—the “white paper revolution” or the “A4 revolution”, referring to the size of letterhead.

While their rebellion is unlikely to upset China’s political establishment, experts say the protesters are nonetheless sending an unusual signal to the ruling Communist Party – without saying a word.

said Dave Clark, a professor of political science at Binghamton University in New York, who leads Global Protest Monitoring Project.

hour | The white papers have become a symbol of protest in China:

The White Papers have become a symbol of protest in China

The white papers have become symbols of protest in China as thousands call for an end to restrictive “zero COVID” policies and more freedoms in a place where censorship is rife and protests can be deadly.

Decades of protests on paper

Blank signs have been a feature of protests, albeit infrequently, for more than 50 years, including the brazen sit-in of Toronto high school students in May 1969.

“They held empty signs and said their protest had no purpose and they expected nothing,” the Associated Press reported, adding that the group refused to budge until their demands were met.

Today, the virgin defiance symbol has become a symbol of protest movements in many countries.

In 2020, after Hong Kong imposed a national security law banning protest slogans, pro-democracy protesters have used white paper — including plastering walls with white paper — to signal their resistance to Beijing.

The wall of a cafe in Hong Kong, decorated with blank notes, on July 9, 2020, as part of a demonstration in support of the pro-democracy movement in the region. Notes containing words of encouragement to protesters were deleted for fear their contents would cause trouble for the authorities, and blank notes were subsequently posted afterwards to show solidarity. (Vincent Yu / Associated Press).

Plain white banners reappeared earlier this year during anti-war protests in Russia as police arrested people carrying banners and posters – It doesn’t matter if they have something written on them.

Even the British fell out with the authorities because they protested with one blank sheet of paper. In September, when people protesting against the accession of King Charles were detained by the police, the police confronted a lawyer who came to Parliament Square with a white paper and asked him to give his name and contact details.

Teng said that protesters in China believe the White Pages can provide some cover if they are detained by the police. After all, what is politics in a piece of paper that has nothing on it?

“If you have a banner or paper with words like ‘Down with the Communist Party’ or ‘Down with Xi Jinping’, something like that is very dangerous,” said Teng.

“Keeping a white paper is a way to reduce political and legal risks: when people are arrested or questioned [can] They argue that there is nothing there.

Students on the front line

Protests in China were quieter on Tuesday, with more police deployed to the streets of Beijing and Shanghai and college students sent home to quell activities on their university campuses.

The role of students at the forefront of the current protest movement is significant, 30 years after the student protests in Tiananmen Square.

“This is believed to be a generation that is politically inert and brainwashed through patriotic education,” said Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto who specializes in civil society, activism, and state control, with a focus on China.

“The recent campus protests…show that patriotic education has not completely erased Generation Z’s desire for freedom.”

While, A major paper maker in China was forced to deny the rumors on Tuesday The sale of A4 paper was banned to prevent protesters from using it to spread their message.

Hundreds of people gathered outside at night.  Some are carrying blank white papers.
Chinese cities deployed more police this week to try to break up the protests. Here are protesters in Beijing on Sunday. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Observers have also been frantically sweeping references to the protests from social media platforms, although the appearance of the white paper at rallies in various cities suggests that the act of defiance has spread faster than the Chinese authorities can contain it.

“This kind of solidarity is likely to put the government on high alert,” Clark said. Perhaps more than the protests themselves. »

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