The ‘A4 Revolution’ is here: How blank sheets of paper have become symbols of protest in China


In a country where protests are rare and dissent is not tolerated, China is witnessing widespread agitations — demonstrators have gathered in the capital Beijing and the financial hub Shanghai for a third day in a row.

Over the weekend, chants of “Xi Jinping, step down”, “Communist party, step down” and “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China” rang loud and clear across the country, with demonstrators holding blank pieces of paper to protest against the tough COVID-19 policies, including mass testing, quarantines and snap lockdowns for the past three years.

As Chinese authorities deal with unprecedented protests against the strict zero-COVID policy, we take a closer look at the significance of the blank paper that demonstrators are using to register their anger.

A4 Revolution

Over the past few days, China has been witnessing never-before-seen unrest and protest movements.

Images and videos coming from the heavily-censored country show protesters holding blank sheets of paper to send a mute message of defiance to the authorities.

The recurring use of blank paper sheets have led to some dubbing the protests an “A4 Revolution.”

The blank paper is reported to be a statement about protesters being silenced and also to taunt authorities as they cannot be arrested for holding signs saying nothing.

According to tips being shared in chat groups, as reported by Reuters, protesters were being advised to bring a sheet of white paper to the demonstration.

Images and videos being circulated online show students in Nanjing and Beijing holding up blank sheets of paper as they take part in the silent protest to evade censorship or arrest.

Similar scenes could also be seen at the Communication University of China, Nanjing where hundreds came out to protest, holding a blank sheet of paper.

“Everyone thinks that Chinese people are afraid to come out and protest, that they don’t have any courage,” a protester was quoted as saying by the Daily Mail. “I also thought this way. But then when I went there, I found that the environment was such that everyone was very brave.”

One protester in Shanghai told the BBC that he felt “shocked and a bit excited” to see people out on the streets, calling it the first time he’d seen such large-scale dissent in China.

He said lockdowns made him feel “sad, angry and hopeless”, and had left him unable to see his unwell mother, who was undergoing cancer treatment.

Also read: China's COVID Conundrum: Why the virus is showing no signs of slowing down

Interestingly, the blank paper protests seem to be borrowed from the 2020 Hong Kong protests against Beijing’s stringent National Security Laws.

Two years ago, activists in Hong Kong had raised blank sheets of white paper in protest to avoid slogans banned under the city’s new national security law, which was imposed after massive and sometimes violent protests the previous year.

The use of blank paper during the Hong Kong protests came about after authorities banned secessionist, subversive activities, with penalties of up to life imprisonment.

The first blank-paper protester on 1 July 2020, was a young woman who told reporters she held up white paper because she wasn’t sure what would be illegal under the new law. After that, the blank paper protest spread like wildfire — cartoonists drew protesters with empty speech bubbles.

According to Ma Ngok, an associate professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the use of blank paper was a changing form of resistance. “They put up blank notes so that even if the government wanted to prosecute them, there is nothing that can be used against them,” he was quoted as telling the Associated Press.

Why protest now

The blank paper protests come about as China still follows the strictest COVID-19 protocols, which has people locked up in their houses for the past three years.

The catalyst for the protests, however, was a fire that broke out on Thursday in a high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region. At least 10 people were killed and nine injured in the blaze, with locals alleging that lockdown rules hampered rescue efforts.

Videos on social media show arcs of water from fire trucks falling short of the building as rescue teams were stymied by pandemic control barriers and parked cars thought to have been abandoned by drivers forced into quarantine.

Also read: ‘Jimmy Jimmy, Aaja Aaja’: Why Chinese are using Bollywood's 'Disco Dancer' hit number to protest amid COVID lockdown?

There have also been other “secondary disasters” due to COVID restrictions; a bus crashed in Guizhou, which was transporting people who were in quarantine. In another instance, a pregnant woman had a miscarriage after being refused entry to a hospital in Xian. There was also a young boy in Lanzhou who died because of gas poisoning during a lockdown.

There has been growing frustration against China and its zero-COVID policies, and now there are concerns that these protests might now spark a serious challenge to Xi Jinping’s ultra-autocratic regime.

Chaos in China

Despite the repressive regime and its ability to crush dissent, China has seen protests in the last few months, according to China Dissent Monitor, Freedom House’s new database and research tool.

Also read: Will China really follow its zero-COVID policy for five years?

It has recorded 668 instances of dissent in China from June to September of this year, as people spoke out against stalled housing projects, labour rights violations, fraud, COVID-19 policies, and state violence, among other grievances.

“Contrary to what the Chinese Communist Party wants the world to believe, individuals throughout China are standing up to Beijing’s machine of censorship and repression to make their voices heard,” said Michael J Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “More Chinese people are taking the courageous step of exercising their fundamental rights to free expression and assembly, which is rightly troubling to the ever-more oppressive Party.”

With inputs from agencies

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The ‘A4 Revolution’ is here: How blank sheets of paper have become symbols of protest in China
The ‘A4 Revolution’ is here: How blank sheets of paper have become symbols of protest in China
ASE News
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