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How Protesters In China Are Cleverly Defying Their Communist Government

On June 4, 1989, student-led dissenters gathered in a Chinese city and faced soldiers armed with assault rifles as tanks rolled toward them. The protests had started two months before as the communist People’s Republic of China dealt with economic and social issues sweeping the post-Mao nation. Communist China declared martial law days before, but that didn’t stop the anti-government demonstrators from coming back to the square.

Moments later, soldiers fired into the crowd of protesters, and blood covered the street. Estimates range from hundreds to thousands who were mercilessly slaughtered by brute government force on the day remembered as the Tiananmen Square massacre.

That bloody spring day marked the last time mass protests against the communist regime hit China’s capital – until last week. China’s craving for freedom was silenced in the decades following the massacre, but not extinguished. Nearly three years since the onset of the COVID pandemic, the Chinese people are still subjected to extreme restrictions that lock them in their homes for as long as 100 days at a time, but the frustration is boiling over.

Even living in the most surveilled society in the world, Chinese protesters in at least 16 cities across the country have found subtle and clever ways to protest their authoritarian regime and “Supreme Leader” Xi Jinping. Using sheets of white paper, memes, and ironic internet word choice, the Chinese people are pushing back against their all-powerful government.

The demonstrations started when hundreds of Chinese people gathered over the weekend to mourn 10 people who lost their lives in a deadly apartment fire in the Xinjiang province. The protesters blame China’s “zero COVID” lockdown policy for why first responders did not respond in time to save those who perished in the fire. The vigil held for the 10 dead, including a 3 year old, soon turned into protests with demonstrators holding up white pieces of paper while chanting for an end to “zero COVID” lockdowns.

The color white is often displayed during funerals in China, and is now used by the protesters to state their anger over the draconian COVID lockdowns. A 29-year-old film producer who attended a vigil told The New York Times that the white sheets of paper “means ‘we are the voiceless, but we are also powerful.’” Another demonstrator told Reuters that the white paper “represent[s] everything we want to say but cannot say.”

White paper was also used as a form of protest in Hong Kong in 2020 after China passed a national security law that strips more free speech away from those in the city. Those in Hong Kong and now protesters in Beijing and Shanghai view white paper as a symbol of defiance against China’s extreme censorship.

Last weekend, people gathered for a vigil on Shanghai’s Urumqi Road, which is named after the Xinjiang city where the deadly fire occurred. The vigil turned into a protest as people held up the white sheets of paper and chanted, “Need human rights, need freedom.”

Some demonstrators didn’t hide their anger behind subtle protests. Instead, they openly shouted for Xi to step down and sang a worldwide socialist anthem popularized in the country by Tiananmen Square protesters.

Protesters also turned to a meme to continue their creative defiance of the totalitarian government. On Shanghai’s Urumqi Road, three men dressed as construction workers took down a sign for the road where protesters had gathered, but just a day later, an image of the severed road sign spread online as a meme.

“That’s the censorship mechanisms’ own doing. They created this situation,” said Professor Xiao, a researcher on internet freedom at the University of California, Berkeley. “When everyone is suffering from ‘zero-Covid’ restrictions and anger is so widespread, then any memes will catch.”

The protests have spread from Shanghai to the communist country’s capital in Beijing. In another clever form of protest, college students in the country’s largest city took to the streets holding signs of a math equation from Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann. Friedmann’s name in Chinese is a homonym for “free man.”

Defiance shows up even on China’s closely monitored internet. Chinese authorities quickly censor online posts that contain negative messages, but protesters have found ironic ways to get past the censorship. They post anti-government text with Chinese characters for “yes,” “good,” and “correct,” tricking the censors into thinking the posts are positive, The New York Times reported.

Those standing up for freedom in China today might look different from the iconic photos of the Tiananmen Square man boldly standing in front of a tank in 1989, but defying the Chinese Communist Party in 2022 still requires the same amount of courage.

Whether with subtle sheets of paper or with outspoken chants of defiance, the Chinese people have made the loudest noise in the communist country in decades. A regime built on the complete control and surveillance of its citizens is finally being tested by people who have had enough of communism’s tyranny.

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