Many times an object can become a symbol of a protest movement. This time in China, it was an unremarkable blank slate.
As night fell in Shanghai on Sunday (November 27), some participants in a vigil commemorating the victims of the Urumqi high-rise fire that sparked the wave of demonstrations held up blank papers.
Likewise, in Beijing, the Chinese capital, protesters held blank papers at Tsinghua University.
In another striking video, a young woman can be seen walking through the streets of Wuzhen, Zhejiang, wearing chains around her wrists, her mouth taped and a blank sheet of paper in her hand.
Blank paper protests have also been seen in demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2020. At that time, Hong Kong people held blank papers to protest the “Hong Kong National Security Law”. Hong Kong activists held up blank papers to continue their demonstrations after authorities banned slogans and phrases related to mass protests in 2019.
Some people say that holding a blank paper or a banner with nothing written on it is not only a statement of the suppression of dissenting voices, but also a challenge to the authorities, as if to say, “You will be killed because I held up a banner with nothing written on it.” Arrest me?”
“There’s definitely nothing on the paper, but we know what’s on it,” a woman who participated in the Shanghai protests told the BBC.
Johnny, a 26-year-old protester in Beijing, told Reuters the white paper “represents everything we want to say but cannot say”.
BBC China media analyst Kerry Allen has noticed that China’s censors are running into overdrive on social media platforms.
“Tens of millions of posts have been filtered from search results,” she said, and searches for “blank paper” now return very limited results.
The censors’ cleanup of social media sparked outrage online, with one netizen leaving a message: “If you are afraid of a blank sheet of paper, that is weakness”.
Meanwhile, Chinese paper maker Shanghai Chenguang Stationery was forced to issue a statement denying rumors that it was pulling all A4 paper from shelves for national security reasons. Officials at the company said production and operations were normal and they had notified the police about the false documents circulating online that had sparked the rumors.
But the blank paper also drew attention from those who remained loyal to the central government and were angered by the wave of protests.
A video believed to have been shot at Nanjing Communication University on Saturday showed an unidentified man angrily snatching blank paper from a protester and rushing it away.
In another video later that night, dozens more students held blank papers on campus and stood in silence.
Demonstrators, beholden to Beijing’s censorship machinery, have also turned to other forms of anti-government commentary, including sarcasm expressing support for China’s draconian COVID-19 zero policy.
In another protest, dozens of protesters holding blank papers chanted, “Second” and “Nucleic acid,” after officials ordered them to stop chanting anti-lockdown slogans.
There were also reports that at Tsinghua University, some students held up blank sheets of paper with Friedmann’s equation written on them. Russian physicist and mathematician Friedmann used this equation to explain how the universe evolved over time.
Friedman’s name is homonymous with “free man” in Chinese.
But a blank sheet of paper remains by far the most common symbol of this wave of protests in China, joining umbrellas (Hong Kong), rubber ducks (Thailand) and flowers (Belarus) as symbols of modern protest.