Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Power of China’s Blank Sheets of Paper

2022 is not 1989, but demonstrations may yet develop in unpredictable ways.

By , Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief.
People hold blank sheets of paper in protest of COVID-19 restrictions and censorship in Hong Kong on Nov. 28.
People hold blank sheets of paper in protest of COVID-19 restrictions and censorship in Hong Kong on Nov. 28.
People hold blank sheets of paper in protest of COVID-19 restrictions and censorship in Hong Kong on Nov. 28. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

BEIJING—After unrest erupted in parts of China this past weekend, many friends asked, “Will this end in bloodshed, just as the 1989 Tiananmen protests did?” The recent outburst of public dissent attacking the Chinese government’s zero-COVID policy was the most intense and widespread that many Chinese had ever seen. Wednesday then brought another eerie parallel with 1989: The death of former President Jiang Zemin echoed the April 15, 1989, demise of former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head Hu Yaobang, whose popularity drew an estimated 100,000 demonstrators to Tiananmen Square just before his funeral. Would Jiang’s death inflame the protesters of today?

Mourners have already begun leaving wreaths and flowers at Jiang’s former residence in Jiangsu province. Still, 2022 isn’t 1989. Having covered the Tiananmen bloodshed in 1989, I don’t believe history will repeat itself. China’s recent protests are important in their own right, but their long-term significance may not be as clear-cut as some would think. To be sure, it is extremely rare to hear demonstrators openly call for President Xi Jinping to step down, declaring they don’t want an “emperor for life.”

But let’s be clear: The majority of demonstrators seemed to be calling for an end to draconian zero-COVID restrictions. And paradoxically, authorities were already scrambling to liberalize bits of its anti-pandemic playbook when protesters began clashing with police. In fits and starts over recent weeks, local apparatchiks tried to roll out incremental tweaks to the strict pandemic protocols that have been seen as Xi’s personal obsession. At the same time, increasingly angry tenants’ committees were writing up homeowners’ manifestos. One of them read, “If I’m infected, I would quarantine at home and not accept being taken to other places for centralized isolation against my will.” This document, drawn up by residents in the Runfeng Shuishang complex of Beijing, also declared: “I retain my legal rights [and] will make audio and video recordings of all individuals or organizations suspected of violating the law.”

BEIJING—After unrest erupted in parts of China this past weekend, many friends asked, “Will this end in bloodshed, just as the 1989 Tiananmen protests did?” The recent outburst of public dissent attacking the Chinese government’s zero-COVID policy was the most intense and widespread that many Chinese had ever seen. Wednesday then brought another eerie parallel with 1989: The death of former President Jiang Zemin echoed the April 15, 1989, demise of former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head Hu Yaobang, whose popularity drew an estimated 100,000 demonstrators to Tiananmen Square just before his funeral. Would Jiang’s death inflame the protesters of today?

Mourners have already begun leaving wreaths and flowers at Jiang’s former residence in Jiangsu province. Still, 2022 isn’t 1989. Having covered the Tiananmen bloodshed in 1989, I don’t believe history will repeat itself. China’s recent protests are important in their own right, but their long-term significance may not be as clear-cut as some would think. To be sure, it is extremely rare to hear demonstrators openly call for President Xi Jinping to step down, declaring they don’t want an “emperor for life.”

But let’s be clear: The majority of demonstrators seemed to be calling for an end to draconian zero-COVID restrictions. And paradoxically, authorities were already scrambling to liberalize bits of its anti-pandemic playbook when protesters began clashing with police. In fits and starts over recent weeks, local apparatchiks tried to roll out incremental tweaks to the strict pandemic protocols that have been seen as Xi’s personal obsession. At the same time, increasingly angry tenants’ committees were writing up homeowners’ manifestos. One of them read, “If I’m infected, I would quarantine at home and not accept being taken to other places for centralized isolation against my will.” This document, drawn up by residents in the Runfeng Shuishang complex of Beijing, also declared: “I retain my legal rights [and] will make audio and video recordings of all individuals or organizations suspected of violating the law.”

Previously, all persons detected to be COVID-positive were dragged off to centralized quarantine and sometimes housed in shabby cells or even tents surrounded by disgusting conditions. But when feisty residents recently confronted overwhelmed and all-volunteer neighborhood committees tasked with enforcing COVID-19 regulations, most of them retreated and caved to the tenants’ demands. In a semirural area in Beijing’s southeast quadrant, past the fifth of the city’s six ring roads, one resident told me on Wednesday that several migrant workers to whom she rented rooms had tested positive recently—yet they weren’t forcibly sent off to centralized quarantine. “They’re staying inside their homes, being told to drink lots of water,” she reported. “It seems things are changing.”

Recent days have brought the strongest hint of imminent change. On Tuesday, China’s State Council unveiled a campaign to vaccinate older Chinese, with a goal of increasing the first-shot vaccination rate of those above 80 to more than 90 percent by the end of January. On Wednesday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan was quoted by state media as telling a meeting of health officials that China’s anti-COVID battle had reached a “new situation and new tasks.” (After Xi, Sun is the most senior official identified with anti-pandemic policies.)

In that meeting, Sun also became the first high-level official to acknowledge publicly that the omicron variant was less virulent than previous strains. In a second high-level conference on Thursday—precisely three years after the discovery of patient zero in Wuhan—Sun did not once mention the words “zero-COVID,” the slogan seen as Xi’s signature project. Based on these developments, the Beijing-based consultancy Trivium China concluded that “China’s zero-COVID policy, maintained through whack-a-mole lockdowns in the past three years, is finally turning.” It headlined one of its reports about this assessment with the exclamatory “Ho. Ly. S**t. It’s happening.”

Up until Thursday, many analysts and think tanks kept insisting that zero-COVID wasn’t going away anytime soon, despite occasional tweaks. But something feels different this time. State media reported that authorities who arbitrarily expand the number of areas deemed “high risk” will be punished; in the past, penalties mainly had to do with lax implementation. Anonymous Chinese officials were quoted as saying that areas of Beijing already had begun allowing individuals infected with COVID-19 to isolate at home for a week, without centralized quarantine. Ground zero for this major shift was said to be my residential district of Chaoyang, with 3.5 million residents, many foreign embassies, and the city’s equivalent of Wall Street.

One persuasive sign was the least expected (and perhaps the most outlandish). Early Thursday, a Chinese friend explained to me what he called the “World Cup effect.” The majority of Chinese people don’t care much about elite politics, and while some were, most were not on the streets calling for the CCP and Xi to be toppled. Yet they do care deeply that three years of anti-COVID restrictions have curtailed their freedom to travel, to earn a living, to eat what and when they want, and to enjoy public sports and entertainment. What’s more, they don’t like being lied to.

It should come as no surprise that China’s World Cup viewing audience tends to be male, competitive, and just the type who might jump up and act on their emotions. Chinese censors saw trouble brewing—and apparently found a way to avoid awkward comparisons between the maskless sports fans in Qatar and the widespread mask mandates and lockdowns at home in China. At some point, Chinese watching the games began to notice that the state-run broadcaster CCTV avoided camera angles showing unmasked spectators. On Tuesday, Beijing-based sports journalist Mark Dreyer tweeted about watching the World Cup on CCTV: “I literally just spent the past two hours watching parallel feeds of the Brazil-Switzerland game and there were FORTY-TWO times where CCTV avoided showing crowd/fan close-ups.”

Around the same time, the proverbial light bulb went off in the heads of Chinese sports fans, my friend claimed. “They believed CCTV was cutting out footage of people without masks,” he said. “That’s when they realized, ‘Oh, we’ve been tricked.’” That same day, one user on the Chinese social media platform Weibo posted, “Some people are watching World Cup matches in person with no masks. Some have been locked at home for a month, locked on campus for two months, without even being able to step out the door. Who has stolen my life?” Another asked if China existed “on the same planet as Qatar?” Censors quickly removed the post.

As Orwellian as it sounds, the story didn’t end there. My friend continued with the revelation that a Chinese sports fan had posted a startling prediction online Wednesday night. “He said the markets would rally the following morning, because he noticed, in Wednesday’s footage of the World Cup, CCTV had begun showing more unmasked faces in the audience compared to previous days.” Of course, the notion that soccer games have anything to do with COVID-19 policy sounds ludicrous. Then again, on Thursday morning, the markets did climb, and the yuan strengthened.

All of which makes a bit more sense if you view China’s zero-COVID mantra not as a public health campaign but rather as an ideological one. If you apply the principles of Pekingology to the mode and intensity of CCTV’s distortion of World Cup footage, it’s easy to conclude that the masks-and-lockdown faction is losing ground to the living-with-COVID crowd. But in their scramble to deter further public dissent, will Xi and his allies move far enough and fast enough to satisfy their critics, now that the Pandora’s box of protests has blown open? Or could the similarities with 1989 flare up again?

A protracted discussion has focused on whether one should call China’s recent protests the “blank paper revolution,” so named because demonstrators have waved white sheets of A4 paper in protest against censorship. The word “revolution” is a sensitive one for China’s jittery officials; it implies far greater longevity and impact than a few protest-filled days. Still, what many analysts have neglected so far is the Chinese historical context. It was the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong himself who said, “On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written.” Last weekend’s demonstrations may turn out to be just the beginning of a long and winding narrative—one in which no one can predict how, and in whose favor, it might end.

Melinda Liu is a Beijing-based foreign-policy commentator, Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief, and the co-author of Beijing Spring.

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