Nov 28, 2022 - World

How a blank piece of paper became the symbol of China's protests

Protesters hold blank pieces of paper in Beijing on Sunday. Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Young people protesting harsh COVID-19 restrictions in China have held aloft the most innocuous of objects: a blank sheet of paper.

The big picture: Blank signs were previously displayed during the Hong Kong protests in 2020 and the demonstrations in Russia earlier this year against the invasion of Ukraine. As one protester in Beijing told Reuters, "The white paper represents everything we want to say but cannot say."

Driving the news: Over the weekend, images and videos of students at prestigious universities in Beijing and Nanjing protesting with blank pieces of paper spread widely online.

  • Blank sheets of paper were also seen Sunday at a vigil in Shanghai for the victims of a fire in Xinjiang. The fire sparked the protests due to claims, denied by authorities, that COVID lockdown measures impeded the emergency response.
  • The blank paper has quickly become a symbol of the protests. Results for "blank sheet of paper" and "white paper" have been censored on the Chinese internet, according to the BBC.
  • “I think the white paper is itself a form of protest about the lack of freedom of expression in China," Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells Axios. When any protest message could get you in trouble, "displaying sheets of white paper is kind of like the ultimate protest against this fear," she says.

Flashback: Protesters in Hong Kong turned to blank signs after a national security law imposed from Beijing meant displaying pro-democracy slogans could be deemed an act of sedition or terrorism.

  • One 16-year-old who took part in one such protest at a Hong Kong shopping mall told AFP that while their signs were blank they still carried a message, as "people's minds are not blank."
  • While the Hong Kong demonstrators brought the tactic to international attention, an activist and blogger named Aslan Sagutdinov had filmed himself holding a blank sign in the city of Uralsk, Kazakhstan a year earlier, in 2019.
  • Sagutdinov correctly predicted he'd be arrested, saying: “I want to show that the idiocy in our country has gotten so strong that the police will detain me now even though there are no inscriptions, no slogans, without my chanting or saying anything."

After the invasion of Ukraine, there were also scattered incidents in Russia of individuals being detained after standing in public squares with blank signs — or, in one instance, miming that they were holding "invisible" signs.

  • Others held signs showing only asterisks after the Kremlin made it illegal to call the war a "war," rather than "special military operation."
  • A handful of free speech protesters in the U.K. also adopted the blank sign tactic this year after several individuals were arrested or escorted away by police for holding anti-monarchy signs during events marking the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

What to watch: In China, where public dissent is often quickly suppressed, protesters standing in silence with blank signs pose a more subtle challenge to the authorities.

  • "There was definitely nothing on the paper, but we know what's on there," one protester in Shanghai told the BBC.
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