China’s population has learned that its voice has real power

China’s population has learned that its voice has real power. By Aaron Sarin.

It would be hard to overstate the significance of the “White Paper Revolution” of November–December 2022. For the first time, the Chinese Communist Party actually seems to have submitted to the will of the people. For three long years, the authorities tried to stamp out SARS-CoV-2 — a vain attempt to defeat nature.

No longer. The CCP reversed course, and are unwinding the lockdown. Perhaps this is why:

At the Shanghai vigil on November 26th, protesters began by chanting “Serve the people!” (the old CCP motto repurposed as accusation). Soon they dared to go further, with demands to “Apologise!”

An unidentified woman was the first to shout “Xi Jinping, step down!” — the greatest of blasphemies, like a lone freethinker challenging Biblical orthodoxy in 15th-century Spain. Perhaps the crowd had liberated her, drawing up to the surface hidden heresies. I imagine her suddenly possessed by a deadly exhilaration: one terrible, vertigo-inducing moment in which she found herself willing to jeopardise everything.

After the initial shocked silence, a strident male voice was heard. “Gong chan dang [Communist Party]!” he roared. “Xia tai [step down]!” the crowd answered. And then: “Xi Jinping!” The spell was broken. “Xia tai!” Four times they repeated this call-and-response. Each time the volume increased, and with it a palpable sense of pleasure.

Before long they were freely cursing China’s President. We can find no precedent for this in 73 years of Party rule. Even at Tiananmen Square in 1989, those who defaced Mao Zedong’s portrait were piously given up to the authorities by protesters (and then imprisoned, where one of them was tortured until he lost his mind). The Shanghai police were stunned, and it was hours before they roused themselves to act: scattering protesters, beating and arresting some.

White paper is a symbol of dissent against censorhip


The man who had led the chant was a 27-year-old bartender going by “Wang.” Afterwards, he explained to a Western journalist that he’d been feeling powerless under Zero-COVID and that there was no point in continuing to live. But his actions had made him euphoric. The next day, he received a message from his mother. She told him how proud she was. Later that afternoon, he was taken from his workplace and bundled into a police van. No reason was given for his arrest, no paperwork was provided, and nothing has been heard from him since.

Many demonstrators were hunted down over the next few days, although few will be in Wang’s kind of trouble. Police thugs swarmed onto the Shanghai subway to check mobile phones and trekked from door to door in Xinjiang. Those who had installed Twitter or Telegram were considered guilty. Their blood was drawn, their irises scanned. They were subjected to body cavity searches. …

Many took precautions when joining vigils, cognisant of China’s vast surveillance apparatus. “Zhang” wore goggles and a balaclava. He hid in the bushes when he thought there was a chance police may be tailing him and changed into a new coat before emerging. The following day, to Zhang’s great surprise, the police arrived at his house. It’s simply not enough to guard yourself against facial recognition tech — as soon as you enter the vicinity of a camera, tiny IMSI-catchers nestled behind it will coax your phone to connect. Anyone carrying a smartphone can be caught.