The young Chinese who stood up against Xi’s Covid rules

Protesters march along a street during a rally for the victims of a deadly fire as well as a protest against China's harsh Covid-19 restrictions in Beijing on November 28, 2022. Photo shows two people wearing facemasks, one holding a blank sheet of white paper and one with a candle.
Image caption,Blank white sheets symbolising suppression were a defining feature of last November’s protests

By Kelly Ng & BBC Chinese

in Singapore and Hong Kong

Huang Yicheng was scrolling through his social media feeds after a long day’s work on 26 November 2022 when videos of crowds gathering along Shanghai’s Urumqi Road caught his eye.

Holding candles they mourned the victims of a recent apartment fire in the north-western city of Urumqi. Many believe they couldn’t escape due to strict Covid-19 restrictions, but Chinese authorities dispute this. The protesters also held up blank white sheets, which they said symbolised “everything we want to say but cannot say”.

The vigil in Shanghai quickly turned into a rare protest as people began shouting for China’s leader Xi Jinping to step down.

“I felt so inspired and riled up,” said the 27-year-old. The next day he joined the protesters when they gathered at the same spot, after being driven away by the police the night before.

Similar “White Paper” protests erupted across China. Thousands took to the streets in the capital Beijing, in Chengdu in the south-west, in Xi’an at the centre of the country, in Wuhan, which recorded the world’s first Covid cases.

One year on, those who took part in the protests, which hastened the end of China’s harsh zero-Covid rules, are living between hope and fear.

The BBC spoke to four protesters who say they had hoped for a bigger political awakening. But, as the crackdown unfolded, they left the country – and some continue to keep a low profile, fearing for the safety of their families and friends back home.

Short presentational grey line

“I was planning on going abroad but I never expected to have to stay here for the long term,” says Yicheng, who is now in Germany. “Participating in the White Paper protests has completely changed my life’s trajectory.”

He – along with other protesters – was arrested by Shanghai police as they tried to break up the demonstration. He says they dragged him upside down and then shoved him onto a bus. When they were preoccupied with a fellow protester, Yicheng seized the chance to escape.

But he lived in great fear for several months after that. He was scared authorities would show up at his door and whisk him away. He cut up his Sim card, quit his job, and moved to a remote, mountainous area in Yunnan. He told a trusted friend that if he texted them a smiling emoji, it would mean that he had been detained.

In March, he fled to Germany on a student visa, after a brief return home. To evade authorities, he took a convoluted journey to Shenzhen, where he crossed into Hong Kong by road. He then flew to Singapore and took a final flight to Hamburg. He is now applying for asylum in Germany.

“I think there was a political awakening – and it continues brewing among young people in China,” Yicheng says. “But the price for political activism in China is too high. The authorities have so much power, it is frightening.”

He believes the White Paper movement was part of a series of events that saw a resurgence of critical voices in China in recent years – despite Mr Xi’s increasingly stifling rule.

Protest poster depicting Beijing bridge protester
Image caption,Artwork depicting the bridge protest proliferated online

He referred to the dramatic protest in Beijing in October 2022, when a mysterious man draped two large banners on Sitong bridge calling for an end to zero-Covid and the overthrow of Mr Xi. There were reports of an arrest but, to this day, there has been no official confirmation and the identity of the protester remains unknown.

Angry and tired of crushing Covid lockdowns even as the economy sputtered, residents clashed with authorities in various places, from Shanghai to Guangzhou to Zhengzhou. The frustration soon morphed into something more towards the end of November when, over five days, people took to the streets across China in numbers not seen for decades – and in a rare show of dissent against the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Chinese people living abroad – in Japan, the EU and the US – organised similar protests. In China the crackdown was swift – police used pepper spray to break up the crowds, and on-the-spot detentions and heavily policed streets kept them from regrouping.

Beijing’s extensive surveillance led to more arrests in the weeks and months after, but quietly – the actual number of those who were detained, or still remain held, remains unknown.

“Information around the White Paper protests and other similar movements quickly falls into a black hole in China,” Yicheng says. “We do see more critical voices online now, but the state’s censors swiftly kick into action. They simply silence what they don’t like to hear or read.”

Zhang Junjie, who held up a blank sheet at his university in Beijing on 27 November last year, says he never could have imagined the events that followed the “simple act”.

He was asked to leave school – he says university authorities told his father, who brought him home, that Junjie had developed a “sudden mental illness”.

Junjie’s father scolded him and then sent him to a psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Junjie said. He says he was admitted to hospital several times in the next three months – and doctors gave him tranquilisers during that time.

“Even my grandfather questioned why I had become so ill that I was opposing the Chinese Communist Party. I didn’t expect my family to co-operate with the authorities to such an extent,” he said.

When Junjie returned home, he continued to disagree with his family on his decision to participate in the protests.

He eventually dropped out of university in Beijing and in August this year, he left for New Zealand – he says he wanted to study abroad, but he also wanted to flee “persecution”. He says he too wants to seek political asylum.

But Junije hasn’t been able to shake off his disappointment over the lack of freedom back home: “Sometimes I feel so hopeless. Democracy in China feels like a distant dream.”

Elevated view of marchers, many with banners and flags, during a student-led, pro-democracy demonstration en route to Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, April 27, 1989.
Image caption,China last saw huge anti-government protests in 1989 after the death of a popular leader

The White Paper protests drew inevitable comparisons with the student-led Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, where tens of thousands gathered calling for greater freedom and democracy. It had been set off by the death of the reformist leader Hu Yaobang – and it ended with a bloody military crackdown that killed hundreds or, by some estimates, thousands.

The Tiananmen protests soon turned into a taboo, with no evidence of the movement in Chinese official narratives or even the country’s internet. The White Paper movement has met a similar fate, with records of it scrubbed online, which some say indicates the sophistication of Beijing’s censors.

This November, there were several events held outside China to mark the anniversary of the protests, but none in the country. The BBC understands that in early November authorities had warned those who took part in last year’s protests not to get involved this year.

A student in his 20s, who did not want to reveal his name, recalls how excited he felt gathering with other protesters in Chengdu on 27 November last year. “Being at the scene and hearing people chant slogans so boldly. I really felt at the moment that there could be real change in China.”

Now, a year on, he says discussions about the protests have disappeared: “Perhaps people don’t feel safe talking about it.”

But he said he had been struck by how much the White Paper protests reverberated across the world: “This was something I realised only after I left China.”

He has been in France since May this year. He left China after three rounds of questioning by the police. He says he is still worried about causing trouble for his friends and family.

“I don’t want to come to a point where I am completely cut off from China, or to be perceived as a very ‘political’ person,” he said.

For a 20-something Shanghai protester, who also wished to remain anonymous, last year’s protests led to the opposite decision.

He used to aspire to work in a large private company, but is now leaning towards advocacy. He is now enrolled as a student in London and wants to continue speaking up for Chinese people.

A demonstrator lights a candle at an onsite makeshift memorial, during a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in solidarity with protesters in China on December 3, 2022 in Berlin, Germany.
Image caption,The White Paper protests drew support across the world – such as this memorial in Germany

“The White Paper movement changed me,” he said.

The demonstrations were spurred by Beijing’s decision to cling to zero-Covid rules even as the rest of the world opened up. But, he said, protesters had rallied around something bigger – their opposition to the country’s leadership.

The White Paper movement inspired “a fair bit of soul-searching” among young, educated Chinese, says Maya Wang, interim China editor at Human Rights Watch.

She points to Halloween revellers this year showing up to parties with blank sheets of paper stuck to their clothes, and she says China’s sluggish economy has led to more people “rethinking their lives”.

“It is hard to say how optimistic one should be about the space for dissent in China. But we do see a larger number of people – and capital – leaving China, which is an interesting change from the last decade of carefully-cultivated nationalism.”

But Beijing’s “heavy-handed approach was intended to have an intimidating effect and it did,” says Steve Tsang, who heads the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Nevertheless, he said, the White Paper protests show that “the human spirit lives on in China”.

“As Mao Zedong famously said, a spark is all that is needed to set the prairie on fire. Mr Xi only needs to falter once… To stay in power he has to be successful every time.”

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