One year after crowds of protesters across China held up blank sheets of paper, chanting slogans calling for an end to the zero-COVID policy and for Communist Party leader Xi Jinping to step down, activists overseas vowed to keep the flame of the “white paper” revolution alive, despite attempts by Beijing to scare them away.
While authorities in China moved quickly to quash the protests, arresting a number of young people for taking part, some managed to leave China, joining others who were already expressing their support on the streets of cities around the world, sometimes risking retaliation against their families back home.
One of those overseas supporters was Apple, of the dissident group China Deviants, who was in touch with the protesters in real time via Telegram, and who organized a rally to mark the anniversary of their resistance in London this week.
“On one voice call, a girl got busted right in the middle of the call,” Apple told Radio Free Asia. “People in the group were shouting ‘That girl got busted!’ and I was on the other end of the phone in London.”
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! I really wish I could help her and bring her back’,” she recalled.
Instead, she got active right where she was, taking to the streets of London to oppose Chinese Communist Party rule.
The “white paper” protests were sparked by public anger at the delayed response to a deadly fire on Nov. 24 in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, that was widely blamed on COVID-19 restrictions.
The incident, which left at least 10 people dead, prompted an outpouring of public grief and tapped into pent-up frustrations of millions of Chinese who had endured nearly three years of repeated lockdowns, travel bans, quarantines and various other restrictions to their lives.
But it wasn’t all about calling for an end to lockdowns and mass quarantines. Protesters also voiced calls for greater freedom of expression, democratic reforms, and even the removal of President Xi Jinping, who has been closely identified with the rigid policies.
“We want to amplify the voices that have been censored in China overseas, because it’s impossible to have any form of civil society in [today’s] China,” she said. “We want all voices to be included … to be heard.”
Fellow China Deviants activist Chen Liangshi said overseas activism is still not risk-free, and that the threat of violence and harassment from “little pink” supporters of Beijing is always there.
“There are a lot of little pinks overseas, and I would never know how many people felt the way I did,” Chen said. “But since joining China Deviants, I have found a lot of like-minded friends.”
“When we work together for the causes of resisting communist rule, and democracy for China, I feel very excited, and have found a sense of belonging,” he said.
Fellow China Deviants activist Ma Youwei agreed.
“It’s very common to feel powerless as a Chinese person living in China,” Ma said. “I wanted to get rid of that feeling.”
“How? You do it through action.”
Yet the anniversary comes amid growing concern over Beijing’s “long-arm” law enforcement targeting overseas activists and students, who had expected to enjoy greater freedom of speech and association while living or studying in a democratic country.
Both Chen and Ma said their families haven’t yet been directly targeted by the Chinese authorities, and insisted on pseudonyms to preserve their anonymity.
“This is the way the Chinese Communist Party suppresses the overseas democracy movement,” Chen said. “They try to frighten us into not speaking out or protesting, so they can maintain their totalitarian rule.”
“It’s normal to be afraid, but we can’t let that fear stop us, because it runs counter to our values and political ideas,” he said. “We still have to stand up.”
In Canada, Xiaopei recalled using his circumvention tools to go online on the morning of Nov. 27 to see large groups of people gathering on the streets of Shanghai, then heading out on his bicycle to join them.
He was later detained at a protest in Shanghai’s Xuhui district, beginning an ordeal of torture and inhumane treatment at the hands of police.
“They put my hands behind my back and hit my head against the wall. It was a concrete wall, so my head was bruised,” said Xiaopei, who declined to give his full name.
“I protested again inside [the police station], so I was arrested and put on the tiger bench, which is an iron chair,” he said. “My wrists and ankles were all in restraints, and I sat there for more than an hour without being able to move.”
Manacles and leg irons
Xiaopei was released the following day, but placed under close surveillance, then redetained after taking part in a discussion on Twitter, now X, he said.
This time, police put him in manacles and leg irons for 30 days, and was unable to move around freely.
“I was in restraints for 30 days … I had problems sleeping, I couldn’t wash or change my clothes by myself, so anyone who monitored me would notice that I smelled bad,” said.
“I couldn’t even eat or drink by myself, and I needed help going to the toilet,” he told Radio Free Asia.
Xiaopei was eventually released, and decided he was leaving China, and boarded a plane to Canada, where he applied for political asylum.
“Ordinary people [in China] are treated like ants and are trampled to death,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to take part in action [like the white paper movement], and there are huge risks involved.”
“So people overseas need to give them support and solidarity,” he said.
A Germany-based Chinese student who gave only the pseudonyms Frank said the white paper movement was kicking off back home just as he was getting ready to co-found the dissident magazine Mang Mang.
“Initially we just planned to gather material and start exchanging ideas, and we didn’t imagine that it would coincide with the white paper movement,” he said.
“But when it broke out on Nov. 27 and 28, we thought we should report it, as it was happening right at that time.”
A more international and interconnected approach has become one of the hallmarks of overseas Chinese activism in recent years, building on the “milk tea” alliance of anti-authoritarian protesters across East and Southeast Asia in recent years.
Looking to Hong Kong
In Japan, Chinese student Xingyue had never taken part in any form of political activism before the white paper movement, and didn’t even discuss politics very often.
She said that when she did get involved, she and her fellow activists took a lot of their ideas and practical tips from the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong, whose organized actions included unified slogans and public demands, a system of private hand signals and carefully orchestrated supply lines to support those defending the crowds against riot police across the barricades.
“We needed to learn fast, so we looked at the experience of … the Hong Kong protests in 2019, because there were a lot of archives, a lot of records.”
“So my political awakening and that of my movement were achieved through the people of Hong Kong,” Xingyue said.
Frank also referenced the 2019 Hong Kong protests, which used martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s maxim “Be Water” to describe a decentralized movement that flows where it can, evading capture and final confrontation.
But while Mang Mang styled itself “an independent, uncensored Chinese magazine,” it has felt the effects of the Chinese Communist Party’s “long-arm” law enforcement, even in democratic Germany, he said.
The families of some of its members have been harassed by police in China, forcing them to quit the project, while cyberattacks by mysterious “hackers” have slowed down its operations.
The team has undergone information security training and relaunched the website, and is “regrouping” to bring out a second issue, Frank said.
“As long as it survives, wherever in the world that may be, that is kind of a miracle for us,” he said. “It could never have taken root in China because the [political] environment is so hostile.”
But now that the immediate excitement of the “white paper” movement has passed, many people seem to have gone back to business as usual, leaving Frank and a handful of others with a sense of loneliness and isolation.
“Everyone seems to have gone back to daily life … and we’re the only activists left,” Frank said.
“We’re still on the beach, yet the waves seem to have receded. It feels as if we’ve been left high and dry,” he said.
But Xingyue likened the overseas resistance movement to “a kind of fire,” that spreads like the seeds of a dandelion, both around the world, and back into China from overseas.
“Those seeds may die, or they may wind up falling to earth somewhere else,” Xingyue said. “As long as we keep blowing on them, one or two will always find their way back.”
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.