The emerging protests in China point towards the most significant mass mobilization – and already more physically widespread – since the 1989 student-led Ti’ananmen Square occupation, inspiring, awing, and touching people across China and the world. These protests will change Chinese history – and policy – but right now, they are immediately striking because of their highly creative, low-tech tactics to express dissent in an authoritarian state, and also because they are igniting and strengthening emotions and a narrative of care and basic humanity that is enabling mass participation. 

On November 24th, 2022, a deadly fire broke out in Ürümchi, the capital of Xinjiang in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of western China. Officially, 10 people died in the fire, but Chinese citizens quickly distrusted the authorities’ handling of the situation, insisting that COVID-19 policies and controls were responsible for a lack of will and urgency to rescue the fire victims. On November 26th, 2022, widespread protests broke out across Chinese cities and towns, particularly university campuses. 

Protestors first mourned the victims of the fire by bringing flowers, creating fires, and holding up blank white pieces of paper on the street – white is the color of mourning in China. Yet, these blank pieces of paper symbolized much more than mourning. Implicitly, they made transparent the rigorously enforced system of censorship and surveillance in China, which became even stricter under Xi Jinping’s rule and the COVID-19 pandemic. Dubbed the ‘A4 Revolution’, these blank pieces of paper provided a low-tech way for people to join in the protests, and many cities across China were even sold out of A4 printer paper. As more and more protestors joined in, they used graffiti, flyers, and word of mouth to gather people around them – embracing offline and low-tech tactics to avoid technological surveillance systems. 

China’s heavy authoritarian rule has created a self-policing culture of self-censorship: researchers have found that resentment on the Chinese internet has become more subtle, individual, and more commonly directed at local problems instead of broader government policies or systems. What is particularly striking about these protests then, beyond the scope and size, is the fact that Chinese residents and citizens are going beyond criticizing the handling of COVID-19: they are also criticizing Xi Jinping, the government, and some are even calling for regime change. That is the level of anger and frustration: publicly calling for regime change and criticism of the current one-party government in China is simply unheard of – for if it happens, the Chinese government will immediately crack down on unpatriotism

Frustration has been growing rapidly under zero COVID-19 China, and particularly under Xi Jinping’s iron fist rule. During harsh lockdowns which are still on-going in the country, local governments have not adequately provided for people with limited mobility, including the elderly, people with disabilities, and more. Authorities have consistently failed to take care of people who are dying in quarantine, address the heartbreak of children being separated from their parents, and many more tragic situations. Many people cultivated sympathy and empathy with former strangers during this time, reaching out to share information, food, services and more during harsh lockdowns. Chinese residents and citizens have demonstrated that they are more caring for each other. Women, culturally socialized as primary caretakers, particularly in patriarchal China, are also succeeding in this: in the first protest in Shanghai against the lockdown, a pregnant woman stood up and distracted the police. Women cooking food for the fire victims in Ürümchi sustained grieving and fueled emotions on Weibo. Chinese residents and citizens turned online to express their emotions and experiences – essentially, dissenting from the official narrative on zero-COVID. They virtual protests, speaking in innuendo and making up codes and dates to keep their dissent alive. Besides ordinary citizens organizing virtual protests, many also began to participate in mutual aid and community events out of necessity. 

The larger narrative is one of care for the people and their basic humanity and the Chinese government is losing on this front. A new event can provide the tipping scale for previous patterns of frustration, anger, and even organizing. The immediate demands however, focus on protecting and caring for people during China’s worst year ever of the pandemic. Lausan Collective recently published a list of action-oriented demands and also strategies to support protestors, including strengthening mutual aid and community self-organization. 

Fang Kechang, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, spoke to Rest of World about the emotional significance of the mass outpouring. “When we talk about ‘impact’, we should include more subtle things other than changing policy or regime,” said Fang. “If some can remember… then it already has huge impact, because it clearly shows an alternative narrative to the official propaganda.”

Many people, especially young people, are joining the first protests in their entire lives. Indisputably, it is students and young people who are leading the riskiest and most significant protests. Young people are beginning to divest from the “China Dream” that Xi Jinping has laid out for them – they are living in a deteriorating economy, a rapidly worsening climate crisis, and are disillusioned and disenchanted with their society.  Through collective actions – some less confrontational than others, such as “collective crawling” – young Chinese people may be growing the seeds of mass discontent and more targeted political strategies in the future. 

Young women, particularly, are leading the charge in and outside China in rallies, displaying their anger, courage, and the fact that they feel that they have nothing more to lose.At Tsinghua University in Beijing, one young woman made a speech saying: “If we dare not speak out because we are afraid of being arrested, I think our people will be disappointed with us. As a student of Tsinghua University, I will regret it for the rest of my life!” In the background, large numbers of students chanted the slogan: “Democracy, rule of law and freedom of speech.” More intersectional platforms emerging on protests and resistance to patriarchal authoritarianism at large by feminist and queer activists, such as Chinese Queers Will Not Be Censored and We Are All Chained Women. Chinese Queers Will Not Be Censored recently published a guide on non-misogynistic organizing in public spaces. 

Ultimately, the mobilization process is far more important than outcomes. The majority of social movements do not lead to immediate changes. But the participation itself means a hopeful future for China. This may be the beginning of many seeds being planted, new learning about solidarity and empathy, and renewed hope for many activists, dissidents, and social movements who have been beaten down and weary. The swirl of passion from anger and indignation is a driving force. The outburst of emotions on display is a cognitive cue signifying to Chinese people that their grievance is widely shared. On a cognitive level, it is mind opening to even witness and believe in the possibility of civil disobedience and ultimately, structural change – under authoritarianism. 

Ani Hao

Ani Phoebe Hao is a freelance journalist, researcher and media consultant. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Teen Vogue, GenderIT, VICE, and Open Democracy.