Why Were the White Paper Protests Comprised of Three Movements? Understanding the Revolutionary Features and Limitations of the Anti-Lockdown Protest Wave


Authored by Zuoyue, translated by Chuang
December 23, 2022

As local governments everywhere have begun to subpoena and detain participants in a low profile, it is now undeniable that the wave of White Paper Protests instigated by three years of harsh lockdowns has already come to a rapid end. This wave of resistance—widely seen as the only nationwide protest wave since 1989—saw the rapid formation of a spontaneous alliance between workers, urbanites and students that spanned regions. Politicized slogans even cut across class lines to gain a certain degree of general acceptance. In that moment within Chinese society, this rising tide of movement undoubtedly possessed a revolutionary character, or we could at least say that it exposed the issues that had long been accumulating within society and thereby marked a qualitative shift, completely reworking our image of mass protests in the country. 

Even with the lifting of the lockdowns, through which the demands of the masses were apparently met (despite society sinking into another form of “disorder” due to the government’s extreme decision to “lie flat”), there is no reason to believe that the accumulated political energy of this wave will vanish into thin air as in the mass movements of the past. But how has this movement dissolved in such a short period of time? Aside from the usual difficulties posed by government repression, how might we understand and reflect on the revolutionary character and limits of this wave of protests? As a long-time activist within domestic NGOs and grassroots [labor] organizations, I will here attempt to anatomize the three parallel movements that existed within the broader wave of struggles, clarifying their points of interaction and tension and offering a few practical reflections on the movement.

Why Did the Wave of Anti-Lockdown Protests Occur?

Although the White Paper Protests were ignited by the tragic fire in Ürümchi, in looking back at the nature of the movement, we cannot ignore either the systematic humanitarian catastrophe or the political-economic crisis caused by three years of “Zero-COVID.” As many netizens commented, it seems as if Zero-COVID had become the new generation’s “fundamental national policy” (基本国策). In every aspect—ranging from the economic to the everyday, including healthcare, culture and mental health—people’s needs were forced into compliance with this political mission, with no margin for compromise or consultation. Since the Omicron variant was highly transmissible and difficult to control, the first half of 2022 saw more than 400 million people across the country forced into stagnant lockdowns, which were especially prominent in Shanghai and border regions such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan.The various secondary disasters and the economic, livelihood and political crises caused by the lockdowns ultimately became the core elements that ignited the protests.

Secondary Disasters

On the 24th of November, lockdown measures led to the deaths of at least ten people (all Uyghurs) in a fire in Ürümchi, Xinjiang. That night, the news broadcast a statement by officials criticizing the victims, saying that “some residents showed a poor ability to protect and rescue themselves.” Ultimately, this proved to be the final conflagration that ignited the anger of the masses. But such fires had been burning continuously from the Wuhan lockdown onward, already experienced in the lockdowns in Nanjing and Yangzhou in 2021, and again visible in the disregard for the desperate suicides of residents during the Shanghai lockdowns earlier in 2022, not to mention in the tragedy of the innumerable people who died because they were unable to access medical care during a sudden illness. 2022 was a year of collective trauma across the country: On September 18th, 27 people died when a bus overturned in Guizhou; on November 1st, a 3-year-old child in Lanzhou died of carbon monoxide poisoning after lockdown protocols hindered first responders; on November 11th, after Shenzhen University had been closed for a month, unreasonable arrangements drove a campus janitor to jump to her death; on November 18th, a migrant worker in Guangzhou hanged herself after testing positive for COVID-19 and being sent to a makeshift hospital for isolation; and on November 21st, a fire at a factory in Anyang, Henan led to the deaths of 38 people (most of them female workers)….It is nearly impossible for us to record all the humanitarian tragedies suffered under the lockdowns, since each day saw more and more emerge in all parts of the country—these were collective wounds suffered by the whole populace, to which everyone was witness. As the sign of one protestor from Northwest University of Political Science and Law read: “It was I who was on the overturned bus, it was I who was refused medical service, it was I who broke down and jumped off the roof, it was I who was trapped in the fire. And even if these were not me, I will be next.”   

Economic and Livelihood Crises

From the state’s perspective, the last three years of lockdowns seem to have done a good job of reducing the disruption to economic life caused by the coronavirus. But it’s obvious that this isn’t exactly the case, with 2022 seeing the proliferation of unemployment, layoffs and financial disputes spreading to such an extent that consumption has remained overall weak, all signaling a budding crisis for people’s livelihoods. On the one hand, the main forms of financial relief offered by the government during the pandemic have focused on providing tax cuts and social insurance subsidies to companies, with workers hardly receiving any economic assistance from the government, forced to rely only on themselves.On the other hand, the prolonged unpredictability and suddenness of the lockdowns ensured that the incomes of both service and manufacturing workers were unstable. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed was prone to sudden increases and a portion of workers were forced to enter the informal economy, taking on jobs in sectors like food delivery.[13] Both the long-running, compartmentalized lockdowns and evolving, algorithmic exploitation by capital prevented workers from obtaining stable incomes. Though it is unfortunately difficult to find accurate unemployment figures, two public data sources provide some hint at the urgency of the situation. One is the sudden increase in the rate of unemployment among youth and the rate of recent graduates unable to find work. In July of 2022, official government data showed the unemployment rate among urbanites 16-24 years old to be 19.9%, while the media reported that as of March 2022, only 23.61% of recent graduates nationwide had found work. Furthermore, the government’s initial GDP growth target of 5.5% was unable to be met, with growth over the first three quarters amounting to a mere 3% and new coronavirus outbreaks making [higher] GDP growth impossible in the fourth quarter. For many workers, unemployment or loss of income has been the inevitable economic cost of these lockdown politics. 

Thus, even before the outbreak of the White Paper Protests on November 26th–27th, for at least the half year prior to November, protests against the lockdown had been continuously breaking out in urban villages and across migrant worker communities more generally, with migrants tearing down quarantine fencing and placing “livelihood demands” at the center of such struggles. This was especially evident in a November 14th protest by as many as a thousand migrant workers in Kangle Village in Guangzhou, and in the large-scale protests at the Zhengzhou Foxconn plant on November 22nd and 23rd. The ripple of urban village protests would also continue even after the White Paper Protests were beaten back. 

Widespread Pandemic Fatigue and Increasing Lack of Trust in the Government

The legitimacy crisis of social governance in China had already been brewing prior to the pandemic. In recent years, the frailty of economic development and the uncertainty of upward mobility had already begun to confront workers (both blue-collar and white-collar) with the urgent pressures of survival. Emergent popular discourses—ranging from “corporate slavery” (社畜) to “involution” (内卷), from “lying flat” (躺平) to “runology” (润学), or even talk of “the final generation” (最后一代)—all represent the passive resistance of a new generation of youth faced with the extreme inequality of distribution in capitalism, with each year’s newest bit of cultural vocabulary simply representing the steady progress of despair. These multifaceted social crises have met with no official response. Instead, they have been uniformly rejected or stigmatized as the “influence of foreign powers” and thereby suppressed by refusing dialog and demonization, making the dictatorial character of public authority even clearer to the populace. This was clear in a number of occurrences over the past few years: the death at Chengdu No. 49 Middle School, Xianzis #Metoo case, the chained woman of Feng county and subsequent imprisonment of the blogger [Wuyi] who was investigating the case, and the Tangshan restaurant attack.   

Moreover, the political awakening of ordinary people that began with the abolition of term limits from the constitution in 2018 was truly ignited by the Sitong Bridge incident on the eve of the 20th Party Congress. Although evidence of the brave and lonely protest was erased from cyberspace in the blink of an eye and the individual who unfurled the banner was soon after disappeared, the widespread shouting of his slogan “I don’t want a nucleic acid test, I want freedom” in the White Paper Protests made clear that this oppositional political consciousness had quietly taken root in the minds of the people nonetheless. This new picture of popular political revolt had already been drawn before the pandemic, with all secondary harm caused by the inhumane manner of the lockdown and the ensuing economic livelihood crisis merely intensifying the public’s lack of trust in the entire system. Furthermore, not only did the expected loosening of pandemic restrictions in the wake of the 20th Party Congress fail to happen, but restrictions were gradually tightened across the country, dashing the hopes of the people. The new “20 Measures” released by the State Council embodied the tension between lockdown and opening, giving rise to numerous conflicts between local and central policies that foreshadowed the subsequent wave of anti-lockdown protests.

Why “Three Movements”?

The November 24th Ürümchi fire sparked large-scale local protests against the city’s lockdown the following day. Soon, grief and indignation over the event had begun to spread widely online and, by the afternoon of November 26th, vigils in which protestors held sheets of blank white paper had spread to a college campus in Nanjing then, by the evening, to Urumqi Street in Shanghai, unleashing the tide of White Paper Protests that soon spread across the entire country and even to Chinese people worldwide. For a brief period over the weekend, students at over 200 universities located all across the country protested on campus, citizens took to the streets in more than a dozen large cities, and, soon after, the Chinese communities scattered across hundreds of cities all across the world held thousands of protests in solidarity, echoing the calls of protestors on the mainland.

This tide of protests that took the white paper as their emblem had soon moved on from merely “resisting lockdowns” to advancing even more extreme political demands. In so doing, it appeared to be a coherent, nationwide political movement that spanned regions and social strata. But, in essence, it was actually a mixture of three parallel movements: first, the struggles of the working class; second, the struggles of urbanites, students, and professionals; and third, campaigns involving those in the new generation of overseas Chinese diaspora communities. However, in disaggregating these three movements, my intent is not to stress their independence, but precisely to emphasize the ways that they were mutually intermixed. Meanwhile, the tension of their parallel coexistence can help us to understand both the complexity and the limits of the recent wave of protests.

When the white paper is cited as the emblem of the whole movement (both within China and overseas) discussions about the movement in its entirety become solely oriented around the political protests of urbanites and students, or to the solidarity campaigns held in overseas Chinese communities, but this narrative ignores entirely the struggles happening among migrant workers and within urban villages. Why should the role of working-class resistance be taken seriously? We cannot ignore the experience of the Foxconn workers’ struggle in inspiring the entire movement that followed. At the end of October, loss of control over a coronavirus outbreak at the Foxconn facility in Zhengzhou led workers to scale the factory walls in a “great escape.” Then, at the end of November, the company’s failure to pay promised signing bonuses for new hires triggered violent confrontations with factory management and riot police involving tens of thousands of workers. In contrast to the long-standing lack of visibility suffered by workers’ actions in defense of rights, innumerable videos and images depicting these two conflicts were spread across platforms such as Douyin and Kuaishou at a phenomenal speed, with the image of workers resisting violent lockdowns and capitalist exploitation resonating with nearly everyone—corruption, confusion, and inhuman treatment were all collective experiences.

To a certain degree, the direct action of the Foxconn workers provided an important resource for the subsequent wave of White Paper Protests—slogans were no longer merely listened to online but given voice in the streets. In fact, protests by workers against lockdowns were something like a connective thread running through the entirety of 2022. According to incomplete statistics gathered by the “China Dissent Monitor,” in the period between June and the advent of the White Paper Movement there had already been nearly 80 anti-lockdown protests, most of which occurred within urban villages or other working-class districts. Workers have been the most susceptible group under the pandemic, with both the immaterial threat of the virus and the material crisis in their livelihoods compelling them to protest. This is also why many places have seen the ripple of worker demonstrations continue even after the White Paper Movement was beaten back.

The Xinjiang fire was clearly the last straw, pushing people’s anger over the threshold. Their indignation then become publicly visible in the vigils held by urbanites, professionals, and students in the streets of major cities and on college campuses. In fact, this wave of simultaneous and spontaneous resistance offers a systematic representation of the political problems of the lockdown in its entirety: the collective trauma of the pandemic and its secondary disasters, the structural political-economic dilemma posed by the crisis in people’s livelihoods, the rupture opened by workers’ anti-lockdown protests, the dashed expectations that followed the 20th Party Congress and the tension that ensued, and the politicized discourse furnished by the Sitong Bridge Protest. Altogether, these became the crucial resources mobilized by participants in the wave of protests that then swept across the cities and university campuses. This was precisely the context in which the solidarity movement among the new generation of the Chinese diaspora entered into another phase. With students composing the bulk of these new overseas Chinese communities, the last several years have seen them undergo a process of rapid radicalization. The repeal of term limits in 2018 instigated a small-scale “#NotMyPresident” protest poster campaign on overseas college campuses. Then the Sitong Bridge protest on the eve of the 20th Party Congress earlier this year spawned another wave of protest posters on overseas campuses. The scale of this wave was enormous, with Sitong Bridge slogans seemingly visible at every major university in the world. The outbreak of the White Paper Movement across China’s major urban centers then triggered a similarly large-scale mobilization within these overseas Chinese communities, which spontaneously organized or participated in local, in-person protests. This sort of overseas solidarity campaign had not been witnessed at anything like this scale in the entire three decades since 1989.

Within this wave of protests, the overseas solidarity campaigns and the domestic White Paper Protests echoed one another, but these two movements’ different compositions and agendas, and their tensions regarding political demands, inevitably determined the different roles that each would play within the broader oppositional wave of China. This is why we distinguish the relationship between the two here. Similarly, we could further subdivide the domestic anti-lockdown protests into those in which workers composed the main body and those in which urbanites or students composed the main body. This is not at all to compartmentalize the relationship between the two, but instead to remind participants of the essential assets and sources of inspiration that long-standing mobilizations among workers have provided to popular struggles in China—social inequality rooted in the economic system has always been the driving force of any political movement—and at the same time to stress the resilient character of worker struggles and the necessity of solidarity with them (as explored below). Moreover, within this wave of protests, these two currents of struggle have not been completely separated in time or place. One important example of this fact was how, throughout the afternoon and evening of November 27th, tens of thousands of individuals in Wuhan, including both migrant workers and urbanites, came together to tear down fences set up along the streets.

The Revolutionary Character of the Wave of Anti-Lockdown Protests

Now that the larger wave of anti-lockdown protests has died down after the government’s sudden “tangping-style” reversal of policy, the authorities have followed their usual pattern and initiated a post-autumn reckoning with participants in the demonstrations. Considering that it disappeared in a flash upon reaching its peak without changing the political structure in any way, I don’t think it’s necessary to elevate this movement to a “revolutionary” status, although such narratives helped it to spread internationally. But we do need to discuss its revolutionary or perhaps progressive character in more depth.

Much ink has been spilled over the long-standing radical tradition of China’s working-class resistance. From the wave of collective rights-defense among the millions of state-sector workers laid off in the 1990s, to the wildcat strikes among migrant “peasant-workers” fighting for [the establishment and enforcement of] lawful rights under the market economy since the early 2000s (especially around the year 2010), it became common for workers to seal off factory gates, march on the streets, block highways and so on. The marginalized status of workers and the state’s particularly sensitive perception and forceful repression of the labor movement combined to conceal such resistance from view of the broader populace for many years. This time, however, the rebellion of Foxconn workers resounded throughout Chinese society, providing raw material for the White Paper Protests and again demonstrating that China’s future oppositional movements must regard the labor movement as a core component.

It’s not that movements staffed primarily by urbanites and students have not existed since 1989, but the politicization collectively expressed in the anti-lockdown protests revealed an entirely new horizon. Most urban struggles have previously consisted of collective actions focused on specific issues, such as the environmental demonstrations against paraxylene factories in Xiamen and Maoming in 2007 and 2014, the collective rights-defense by parents calling for “fair education” in Shenzhen and Kunshan in 2016, the cultural preservation protests to “support Cantonese” in Guangzhou in 2010, or the small, inconsequential struggles by scattered individuals from the Democracy Movement and rights-defense milieux. In the White Paper Protests, most participants’ direct demands still centered on opposing the strict lockdown measures, but political slogans emerging from the crowds—“down with Xi Jinping,” “freedom of the press,” “freedom of speech”—resonated with other participants and elicited cheers.

The Sitong Bridge protests may have been the spark that gave birth to these political slogans, but it was not at all the origin of this qualitative shift. Several years ago (before the pandemic), we could already see in online discourse that middle-class or educated groups were becoming more and more desperate with regard to the prospects for upward mobility and the accumulation of wealth, visible in discourses ranging from “corporate slavery” to “lying flat” to “runology” all revealing an ever-greater loss of faith in the political-economic system—to the point that the state found it necessary to employ its propaganda apparatus in denunciation of such anti-capitalist “rubbish.” In the past, however, these frustrations had never really transformed into acts of resistance. The White Paper Protests in the cities thereby confirmed that a qualitative shift of a revolutionary nature had taken place, at least to a certain degree. At present, we can’t necessarily predict how future mass movements in China will organize or develop, but this one has at least opened up a newly politicized imagination, completely overturning the mobilizational models of previous urban struggles centered on rights-defenders and isolated, depoliticized demands.

The solidarity actions in hundreds of cities and universities around the world broke through the Democracy Movement’s traditional protest model post-’89, of party-style campaigns and lobbying centered on political leaders, instead forming a new type of oppositional politics with mainland students living overseas at its core. In the past, China’s traditional overseas Democracy Movement has been subject to severe denunciations. This sort of political advocacy—dominated by overseas Democracy Movement leaders and emphasizing directly oppositional stances, all strongly infused with patriarchal and conservative tendencies—is completely incapable of uniting and organizing the broad mass of the Chinese diaspora, to say nothing of connecting with domestic social issues and cross-class collectivities—even driving the younger generation to intentionally steer clear of them. But when it came to the overseas support for the White Paper Protests, the core organizers who set the agenda and mobilized participants consisted chiefly of young members of the diaspora who sought to support the movement in China and actively participate in dialogue with various overseas civil society organizations in order to magnify the impact and the progressive character of the solidarity protests.

Moreover, in many places (such as New York, London, Toronto and Vancouver) the solidarity protests not only mobilized a great deal of slogans and signage that addressed diverse issues concerning women, sexual minorities, workers, Xinjiang, etc., but the ways the events were organized also strengthened the respect for diverse groups and issues—especially evident in the attention given to the concentration camps in Xinjiang. After the movement had erupted in multiple cities, overseas Chinese students came up with four relatively moderate demands based on the domestic protests in a bid to lend focus to the movement:

  • Permit open displays of mourning,
  • End the Zero-COVID policy,
  • Release the rights-defenders,
  • Protect civil rights.

These moderate demands sought to widen the space in which protestors in China could safely engage in struggle, so they did not have a strongly politicized character, demonstrating the fact that the overseas solidarity protests were fundamentally oriented around the domestic movement. But as discussions among the overseas Chinese groups increased participants’ level of education about the Xinjiang issue, the plight and voices of Uyghurs—as those most affected by the Ürümchi fire, itself the movement’s starting point—began to be highlighted in the rallies, so the overseas protestor groups added a fifth demand to the list: “End racial persecution” or “Close the concentration camps in Xinjiang.”

Though for now this series of progressive new practices is possibly unable to represent the entirety of the overseas solidarity movement, such progressive mobilization and proposals linked to issues within China are clearly giving shape to a new oppositional politics among the diaspora.

The Limitations of the Wave of Anti-Lockdown Protests

Returning to our core questions: How should we understand and respond to the limitations of this wave of anti-lockdown protests, and how should we regard its rapid dissolution? This is also why we need understand it as divided into three movements. Even if it started off as a cross-class, interregional movement with shared demands in opposition to the lockdowns, upon eruption, its subsequent development and mobilization splintered into three entirely different modalities, and this was precisely the source of its predicament.

In the course of its subsequent development, the movement of urbanites and students based in city squares and universities basically stopped forging ties with the revolts in working-class neighborhoods. This is not to deny the value of the former’s politicization or radicalization, but instead to highlight how this separation demonstrated the total lack of an effective infrastructure for crossing the boundaries between groups and social strata within contemporary China’s popular movements as a whole.

This wave of protests did display a revolutionary facet of China’s new popular revolts, but it failed to provide a substantial solution for the long-standing fragmentation and isolation of civil society as a whole. Since 2013, civil society and NGOs have suffered ever heavier losses, with most of their social networks now disintegrated, all while the entire repressive apparatus has been continuously improved and strengthened. Even if the current social crisis continues and grows more aggravated, there is no infrastructure for interactive dialogue or political mobilization between groups. In mutually independent local struggles, groups may still be able to absorb movement resources from each other, but without dialogue between or even within groups, and without interactive mechanisms for coordination—especially if there is no interaction between educated urbanites and the working class—there is no way for each to echo the other or to get involved in political dialogue as a sustainable organizational force. Thus, when the authorities employ mature and highly targeted repressive apparatuses, the movement as a whole cannot expect to survive for long.

The lack of political infrastructure and social networking is not a problem that only recently emerged in this wave of protests. But if we hope in the future to continue forward within the new political landscape opened up by this movement, it is necessary for all participants to seriously face and reflect upon the plight of civil society infrastructure, and attempt to build domestic networks for coordination and dialogue across social strata, while also opening up new practices of solidarity abroad—otherwise, although China will never lack for protests, it will be hard for society to cohere into movements capable of transforming the era. In the coming politicized movements, then, attention must be focused on the problem of constructing civil society infrastructure: how social networks along with a system of dialogue/coordination across social strata can be built up within domestic civil society that are no longer centered on NGOs (which have become seriously repressed and limited.

This article’s emphasis on the importance of working-class mobilization stems not from wishful, unilateral considerations of moralism or tactics, but from consideration of the history of radical resistance by Chinese migrant workers and the underlying capitalist system of unfair social distribution that it illuminates. Without attention to livelihood issues and working-class mobilization and alliances, it will be hard for any Chinese revolt to overcome the repressive apparatus and statist hegemony consciousness that has become ever more consolidated, and thereby to form an effective aggregate movement.

In addition, the organizational work of supporting and strengthening the new generation of Chinese diaspora will become the core of future overseas solidarity mobilizations. Although this overseas solidarity movement has broken free from the Democracy Movement’s traditional model of mobilization and advocacy, opening up new directions for progressive exploration, the predicament remains: The new diaspora communities centered on Chinese international students lack experience living in China and have few ties with movement groups there. Meanwhile, there are clear political tensions between the situation in China, on the one hand, and overseas mobilizational paradigms and discursive frameworks, on the other. Thorny questions remain concerning how these overseas communities should define themselves in relation to struggles in China. This was one of the central reasons that the overseas Democracy Movement of the 1989 generation grew further and further apart from domestic movements. Especially within the current international environment of opposition between China and powerful Western nations, a key predicament facing these new overseas communities is how to decrease their dependence on foreign political parties and avoid top-down models of advocacy while simultaneously providing sufficient grassroots empowerment to Chinese groups both in China and abroad.

At present, it’s hard to determine how a truly effective overseas solidarity movement should develop, but at least this wave of protests raised another new question: How should overseas communities build solidarity movements which are staffed by the new generation of progressive Chinese activists, centered on domestically salient issues within China, and which emphasize the development of relationships with both movements in China and civil society groups abroad?

(Note from author, this English version is independently translated by Chuang, and not proofread by the author. See the original Chinese version HERE)

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