BY JESSIE LAU
After hundreds took part in stunning mass protests across China last month to express their anger towards Covid-19 restrictions and the Chinese Communist Party, the government this week lifted some of its most stringent pandemic measures.
For many, the decision signalled a win for the anti-lockdown movement, which has also been referred to as the “A4 Revolution” or “White Paper Protest” (protesters held up blank sheets of paper symbolising censorship). Yet China still has a long way to go to when it comes to addressing protesters’ broader calls for freedom, protesters say. Some also reportedly remain in state detention for participating in the movement, which evolved to include wider demands for freedom, democracy and equality for all.
NüStories spoke to two protesters, one in Shanghai and one in London, who reflected on the aftermath of the demonstrations, which were the most sweeping in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.
Liu Ziyi, a 23-year-old protester and graduate student living in Shanghai:
The first day felt like an ideal public domain. Everyone finally found a space offline where they could express their opinions freely without being censored. College students and young people were the main participants. On the second day, the group of participants was much wider, but there were still quite a lot of young people. The next day was much more serious. I witnessed direct conflicts between the police and the people. Many times people were taken away by police uniforms in front of my eyes.
When I was there, I occasionally heard a few nearby residents or passers-by expressing objections, but some protesters also scolded them back. Everyone took to the streets unanimously. The first day was mainly inspired by mourning and commemoration. We wanted to be able to commemorate and remember the unnecessary loss of life in the pandemic.
On the second day, it was more of a protest. Everyone hoped that those arrested could be released and expressed their dissatisfaction with the government’s excessive Covid-19 prevention and control policies. Everyone also had this concept that there was safety in numbers and wanted to protect one another.
I think the white paper is like a symbol—no one will put forward any definite slogans or appeals, because we know it is dangerous to do so. Neither was it an organized gathering or movement. Everyone chanted a lot of different slogans that day, some got a lot of responses, and some didn’t have much echo—all of which seemed like what a public space should look like.
In addition to protests against prevention and control policies (Covid-19 tests, health codes), some also called for freedom of the press, freedom of speech, equality between men and women, nucleic acid kiosks turned into voting halls, and so on. These are our daily appeals, but it is usually impossible to express opinions in this way.
I’ve never participated in a social movement before. It’s almost impossible to do so in Chinese society. Almost all the young people of my generation have only experienced or witnessed public discussions of social issues in the most marginal and underground environment. We must have no plan, no organization, no leader, and no gathering. Otherwise, we will be found by the authorities and targeted for elimination.
Victory is a vague word. There’s an article I read that defines the short term, middle term and long term goals of any social movement. It comes to the conclusion that the middle one (to provoke an idea and get it accepted by most people) is always achieved immediately, while the short (i.e. stopping some specific action conduct by the authorities) and long term (to overthrow capitalism, for example) goals are almost never be achieved.
On the aftermath of the protests, the short term goal (to end lockdown policies) is achieved this time I think mainly because the government itself couldn’t hold the economic and social pressure of locking down. (But) the top down system remains the same, and it is just a decision from the power center.
I hope the detained protesters are all released as soon as possible. I know even one day of detention can cast a huge negative impact on a citizen’s life, yet detention is now commonly used by every level of the government. I’m frustrated at this situation.
Yet, I believe the protests did (express) people’s opinions and set a sort of common public opinion. It’s a victory from this perspective.
Jingwen, an overseas Chinese student in her late twenties who took part in solidarity activities in London:
I was very surprised by the protests because I didn’t expect them. I would never expect people would actually shout out down with the Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping—that’s very radical to me. For us overseas students, we have been handing out signs in different universities in United Kingdom and elsewhere, and I thought that was the farthest we could go and could do to help people who live in China.
I’ve always had hope in the Chinese people. Especially in students in universities—I do somehow still see them as the future, even though with Gen Z the (government’s) doctrine probably has been implanted into them even deeper. But on the internet I do see hope and I know a lot of people who are very “woke” in the Chinese context. So, I disagree with seeing all of them as apolitical and they actually can be very brave. I was very moved.
I think the bridge protest happened in a very critical time because that was just a few days before the 20th anniversary congress. University students abroad, they have spaces for different types of activities. They had the space and opportunity to hang posters, so they did. It becomes very powerful when you see that in different locations people are hanging the same thing. The thing about political repression is (that it makes) you feel very lonely. But seeing these things being posted, you (realize): there are so many people who are on our side. Thats very empowering.
I’ve heard some criticize the protests and saying: ‘In China the Han Chinese, they’re just speaking out (about Covid-zero) because they’re suffering from the lockdown. But they’re not mentioning the (Xinjiang detention) camps and the ultimate struggle for Uyghurs.’ I understand, but I think we need to take this into context.
People in China, they haven’t seen what protest should be like. They don’t have a textbook for protest. But people abroad, they’ve seen that whenever there is a protest you can always have your voice (speak out) on other related issues. Whatever kind of voice, however minor it is, however limited it is, it’s still resistance. It still counts—thats my perspective.
I think optimism is a political act. One of the sectors of our political oppression is that our anger is not expressed, not spoken out, and a lot of people who joined the protest recently have mentioned that they felt mentally better—relieved—after shouting these slogans out. It helped them. So I do hope that more students, more young people, would feel this way. Us being out there, putting stress on the regime—that’s victory already.
I see (the government’s recent scrapping of major Covid-19 restrictions) as a win. This outcome was also foreseen by many, that the CCP will compromise to prevent possible larger scale protests. This is an outcome earned by the protesters and activists who risked and sacrificed themselves.
Along with the lift of restrictions that people can see, there are more unlawful detentions of protesters and dissidents and possible violence and abuse that the public cannot see. We should keep speaking out about this, pressuring the authorities to free the innocent citizens.
It was ironic and painful to see how a former dictator (Jiang Zemin, former Chinese president who recently died) was mourned and paid respect by the state and the Chinese masses, but holding vigils for the deceased in the Urumqi fire was not allowed and stigmatized. This shows a very clear “whose life is more valuable” ethical dilemma and this is before we talk about the Uyghur genocide and the camps, which is an absolute taboo that couldn’t be mentioned during the A4 protest in China.
So yeah, I see the most recent policies as a win, but it doesn’t mean our future is bright. The dark side is still there, quite untouchable, and we have a long way to go. But everyday, our voices make them (fearful). Even if the A4 protests come to an end, the “woke” Chinese (people) will be fighting against authoritarianism, dictatorship and freedom and human rights in other ways.
About the author
Jessie Lau is a writer, journalist and artist in London covering global identity, human rights, gender, politics and culture. She edits the NüStories magazine and is a specialist on China who also keeps an eye on East and Southeast Asia. She tweets @_laujessie