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Geopolitics

What Happened To China's Protests — And Missing Protesters?

Protests that engulfed China quickly faded as the government made a U-turn on its strict Zero-COVID policies, even as police sweeps of demonstrators have left families where their vanished loved ones are. Still, the "Blank Paper Revolution"'s cry for democracy may have quietly left its mark.

Photo of people wearing facemasks at a wet market in Kowloon, Hong Kong

Back to "normal" at a wet market in Kowloon

Dan Wu

Dali Chan, a filmmaker and music lover, joined the protesting crowds in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou and was arrested on Dec. 4. He hasn't been seen since.

Dali is hardly the only "disappeared" protester, according to independent Chinese media NGOCN. Dianxin, a 25-year-old university student, is being held in prison in Guangzhou and denied access to a lawyer or her family members.

“Now that the Zero-COVID has been loosened, why is my daughter still in jail ?," asks her mother. "What crime has she committed?"

Charles, a 24-year-old Uyghur protester in Chengdu, was held by the police after joining a peaceful protest. His father, who barely speaks Mandarin, took a four-hour flight from Xinjiang, only to find out that his request to meet a lawyer was denied by the police. “My son is of a gentle personality,” his father says.

Because many of the arrests have been made in secret, it's impossible to know the number of protesters who have been jailed. Police are also still tracking down protesters in many cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou, where large-scale protests broke out.


Now, almost a month after the protests began, most of the arrested young protesters have been unable to see a lawyer, and are still held in unjustified detentions. Those who have been release have shared stories of violence and abuse at the hands of police.

Building anger

Just three weeks later, the Blank Paper Revolution — named after the sheets of white paper waved by many in China as a symbolic protest of censorship and authoritarianism — now seems like a small flash in a rapidly changing world. But for most Chinese youth, it was the first time they were able to participate in, or even witness a protest.

Three decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese Communist Party had successfully nurtured new generations who grew up obediently to its narratives.

After the 2019-2020 mass protests in Hong Kong, Beijing cracked down on future challenges to its rule by imposing the draconian National Security Law, which gives the government broad powers to arrest dissidents and suppress protests.

But dissatisfaction with the regime's performance during the COVID-19 pandemic built to a boiling point — and arguably forced Chinese leader Xi Jinping to back down and change the government's controversial Zero-COVID policies.

Singapore-based publication The Initium reported that 162 Chinese universities joined in the recent protests, while demonstrations also happened overseas from Paris to New York and activists posted messages of protest on social media.

Photo of protesters at Hong Kong University throw white sheets of paper in the air in support of ongoing anti-lockdown demonstrations across mainland China.

Protesters at Hong Kong University throw white sheets of paper in the air in support of anti-lockdown demonstrations across mainland China

Liau Chung-ren/ZUMA

The hard part about civil disobedience

But like any social movement, the variety of demands and diverse political views have made it difficult for protesters to unite and keep up the momentum.

For most protesters, it was the experience of China's Zero-COVID policy that pushed them to take to the streets. But other demands for human rights and democratic reforms still have not won the hearts of most Chinese.

The official rhetoric often suppresses the Western language of human rights and democratic values.

There are many factors leading to this reality: oppressed ethnic minorities and dissidents opposed to the communist regime are a small part of the population — and because of the strength of China's nationalism narrative, the claims of these groups could be easily defined as "harming national unity" or "motivated by foreign forces," making it difficult to build solidarity with other parts of Chinese society.

Social realities in China have also made it difficult to promote a sense of citizenship and civil disobedience, as the official rhetoric often suppresses the Western language of human rights and democratic values. Years of censorship and successful propaganda have led to the absence of such mentalities.

Beijing shifts blame

It took the pressure of Zero-COVID to provoke widespread resistance, but still, most people could not recognize individual suffering as the result of systematic evil. Slogans like "No COVID testing but freedom" got the most echoes, but "Xi Jinping step down" and demands for the independence of Xinjiang — where the Chinese government has oppressed and interned Uyghur Muslims — are still hard to swallow for most mainland Chinese.

There is still hope for democratic reform. To those who have grown up with political silence under Beijing's firm rule, it's deeply significant to have a collective memory of joining a political movement and hearing demands from different groups. Small groups of dissidents could also "find their company" during these sparks of resistance.

But one also has to acknowledge Beijing's clever approach to the protests: Faced with many demands, Xi Jinping addressed the most salient one — ending Zero-COVID — with concrete action, while ignoring the other demands that threaten his rule.

Now, as the country relaxes COVID controls, an increase in infections and disorder could direct public anger toward those who started the protests. It is hard to say whether Beijing deliberately created such unstable conditions, but it is clear that, as always, the government is endeavoring to shift blame away from itself.

Planting seeds

With many protesters still detained, their fates unclear, it is too soon to turn the page and forget this short-lived movement.

Whether or not the revolution will continue, it sparked a fire after 33 years of political indifference in China, forcing Beijing to take notice of potential backlash to its policies. The calls for freedom and reform still echo, especially among the Chinese diaspora, further from governmental control.

It's impossible to deny the effect of the protests on pushing the government to change its Zero-COVID policies. It may have been a deft political move by the regime in the short term, but it planted a seed to show an entire nation how democracy works.

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