Here’s why protesters in China are holding up blank pieces of paper

Protesters in China holding a blank piece of paper.
Demonstrators hold white signs as a form of protest against COVID lockdowns in China.
Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Protesters with blank pieces of paper have become a common sight at demonstrations against Chinese authorities in recent days.

People held blank signs at a vigil in Shanghai for victims of an apartment fire in China’s western city of Urumqi on Saturday. Many blamed COVID-linked lockdowns for the death of 10 people who were said to be unable to escape.   

The blank paper also spread to other cities in China, so much so that a local stationery company had to deny rumors that it would stop selling A4 paper in the interest of national security. 

The blank pieces of paper are a rare show of dissent against Chinese authorities. But what is their significance?

It’s a way for protesters to convey their opinion against the strict zero-COVID lockdowns and for their support of more democracy without being arrested or their online images being blocked by censors. Holding up the blank white paper says it all without saying anything.

“People have a common message,” Xiao Qiang, a researcher on internet freedom at the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times Monday. “They know what they want to express, and authorities know too, so people don’t need to say anything. If you hold a blank sheet, then everyone knows what you mean.”

Creative messaging during the protests has come in the form of equations and irony too. On Sunday, near Beijing’s Tsinghua University, some students held a sign displaying a mathematical equation by physicist Alexander Friedmann, whose surname in Chinese would be said as “free man.”

The overwhelmingly positive messages by the Chinese media about current political affairs, despite the protests, has led some people to resort to sarcasm by sharing messages that feature a string of terms like “good” and “correct” to share their discontent. People even held banners reading “MORE LOCKDOWNS!” and “I WANT TO DO COVID TESTS!” in an effort to avoid falling into the government’s crosshairs.

Blank signs were used previously in Hong Kong during pro-democracy demonstrations in 2020, shortly after a controversial national security law passed. The thinking was that if authorities ever arrested protesters, they could legally defend themselves by saying they never advocated for anything subversive.

The scale of the latest antigovernment protests in China is unprecedented since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. So far, the Chinese authorities haven’t cracked down on protesters in large numbers. But some videos reportedly show the police approaching and arresting some participants.

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