Little A, a university student in Shanghai, wouldn’t have known about the protest if a friend hadn’t told him to bypass the Great Firewall on Nov 27 to read news outside of China’s censored internet. That’s where he saw that people were planning to protest the country’s strict zero-Covid policy after at least ten people died in a fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, where some of the toughest lockdown measures were in place. To commemorate those who died, the gathering — one of dozens of protests that erupted in major cities across China in the days that followed — took place on Shanghai’s Urumqi Road.
When Little A left a nearby subway station at 8 p.m., the 22-year-old encountered a crowd already hundreds-strong, along with more than a dozen police vehicles. In addition to calling for an end to the zero-Covid policy, the protesters chanted slogans demanding democracy and rule of law, and sang the socialist anthem “The Internationale.” Little A, who spoke to Rest of World under a pseudonym to discuss his first-ever protest freely, said, “It was something I wouldn’t have imagined before. It was the first time I said ‘No’ while standing with everyone else.”
The protests that have taken place over the past week constitute the country’s biggest wave of civil disobedience in decades. But organizing in China isn’t as simple as posting an event announcement to an online forum or a rallying cry on social media. Protesters told Rest of World they worry that sharing information online could lead to having their accounts shut down, or even being detained.
Instead, they’re increasingly turning to workarounds — many completely offline — in order to spread the word: from holding blank pieces of paper in public to scrawling graffiti in bathroom stalls on university campuses. And with older people less likely to use digital tools like VPNs, some protestors say they have simply resorted to spreading their message through word of mouth.
The current wave of dissent started gaining momentum in October, when a lone person on a highway bridge in Beijing hung banners calling for an end to the coronavirus restrictions and for President Xi Jinping to step down. The protestor’s acts emboldened a small group of young Chinese to disseminate his message by writing his slogans on public bathroom walls, among the only public places unlikely to be under surveillance. Protestors also pinned leaflets on campus bulletin boards, and shared images of the protest between Apple devices through AirDrop.
After the Urumqi fire, protesters emerged in multiple cities, alerting each other to gather with a combination of coded WeChat messages, VPNs, and some guesswork. On Sunday evening in Shanghai, Little A only realized he was joining a protest when he found himself in the crowd facing the police. “It was so unexpected,” he said. “Before the night, I had never thought I would dare chant these slogans and disobey the police.”
A protester in Shanghai, who asked to go by the pseudonym Abner in order to discuss his activism freely, told Rest of World that over the weekend, his friends cautiously passed around information about upcoming protests on WeChat under the guise of dinner plans.
Because of the communication limitations, protestors say that demonstrations can feel chaotic and disjointed. At a recent protest in Shanghai, people brought flowers, candles, and blank printer paper, which has given the movement an unofficial nickname: the A4 revolution.
In a country where information on anti-government causes is hard to find, holding a blank sheet of paper has become an effective way to spread awareness about various causes, even though people have to ask what the protests are about. Abner said that after he told a bystander he was fighting against Covid-19 lockdowns and for freedom, the man asked his wife to bring a bouquet of flowers in memory of the Urumqi fire victims.
“The government can not control individuals’ behavior, especially those not afraid of punishment,” Rose Luqiu, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who studies media and social movements in China, told Rest of World. “These people choose public places where they can be seen by others … so that their acts are spread through their social networks on the one hand, and through the social networks of the witnesses on the other.”
Protest supporters in China told Rest of World they circulated protest videos through WeChat and Baidu Cloud links, before censors took them down.
“Censorship would make collective activity decentralized and fragmented in China, but it would not stop the chain effect,” said Luqiu. “With no idea when unrest will occur, such unpredictable demonstrations will overwhelm the authorities if there are enough of them.”
Carrying a blank piece of paper also leaves room for the variety of reasons that protesters have taken to the streets, many of them for the first time. While some are speaking out against Covid-19 restrictions, others are calling for political change. Though the tactic helps people avoid censorship, it also keeps the message fragmented. A protester who works for a publishing house in Beijing told Rest of World she joined a protest on Saturday night with her girlfriend, each holding a piece of white paper. When asked what she would have written on the paper, the 25-year-old said, “That person, step down,” using a common euphemism to refer to President Xi Jinping. Other protesters reported being told by those gathered to stick to chanting for Covid-19-related demands.
Some of the digital tactics used to organize protests resembled those from the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong, although on a much smaller scale. On Telegram, people have formed groups to broadcast information about police deployment and to support those who have already been detained by the police. On Instagram, accounts run by overseas Chinese share pictures from protests all over the world. The most popular source of protest information has turned out to be an Italy-based Chinese influencer using the handle @whyyoutouzhele. The blogger, surnamed Li, collected and shared witness accounts from across China with 740,000 followers and counting. At the peak of the protests, Li told Radio Free Asia, he received 30 to 40 submissions every second.
All these platforms, however, require a VPN to access from China. Police have started interrogating protesters and checking people’s phones on the streets to check if they have foreign apps and VPNs. Online, people are spreading warnings about the checks, and have shared tips about how to hide these apps on iPhones by switching to Focus mode or setting age restrictions. This week, the Chinese Communist Party’s top law enforcement body, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, pledged to crack down on “infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces.” Abner, the Shanghai protester, said he expected the current protest wave to be short-lived. “It’s novel to see previously atomized individuals banding together,” he said, unsure of when or if the next gathering would take place. “But to the entire society, we are just a drop in the ocean.”
The first-time protesters say the memories of standing up to power, and then, running away from police officers, have empowered them to do more in the future. “Holding up the paper and chanting slogans in person, together with others, makes me feel alive again,” said the Beijing protester. “For a brief moment, I felt a bit hopeful again.”
When Little A was protesting in Shanghai on Sunday, some motorists honked their horns in solidarity. An elderly woman on a bicycle stopped to ask for directions — she was confused by the crowd and police presence. Little A and others told her about the fire in Urumqi, and their opposition to the zero-Covid policy. “I support you,” Little A recalled her saying. “I stand with you young people.”