There’s a Soviet joke that has long circulated in China, about a man who is arrested for protesting in Moscow’s Red Square by holding up a blank sheet of paper.
“How can you arrest me?” the man objects in one version. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Everybody knows,” the police officer answers, “what you mean to say.”
That old joke was inspiration for some of the white sheets of paper protesters displayed in recent days in China. Everybody in the country knew what the protesters were trying to express but feared saying.
And when everybody can mentally fill in a blank sheet of paper with the frustration and anger that so many ordinary Chinese feel, that’s a challenge that the de facto emperor, Xi Jinping, cannot suppress as easily as he can arrest individual protesters. Xi has meticulously cultivated a personality cult around himself as the kindly “Uncle Xi” — whose slogan could be “Make China Great Again” — but in the major cities it’s now obvious that he’s regarded by many as an obstinate, ruthless and not terribly effective dictator.
So where will these protests lead?
For all the talk about these demonstrations being an echo of the Tiananmen movement in 1989, they’re really not so far. The 1989 demonstrations unfolded in more than 300 cities around China, brought more than one million people to the centre of Beijing, blockaded entrances to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound and benefited from a paralysing power struggle in the Chinese leadership that delayed a crackdown. In contrast, the Xi regime is already dragging off protesters and searching people on subways for contraband, such as the Instagram app on their cellphones.
To challenge the national government in China today is to invite imprisonment — a man was detained in Shanghai for carrying flowers and making veiled comments — so it’s difficult to see how open resistance can be sustained. Historically in China, mass protests have arisen not when conditions were most intolerable (like the famine from 1959 to 1962) but when people thought they could get away with it, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, the April 5 incident of 1976, the Democracy Wall easing of 1978-79, the student protests of 1986 and Tiananmen in 1989.
Then again, I was Beijing bureau chief of The New York Times in 1989, and most people thought a major protest that year was impossible — until it happened. Human courage is contagious as well as unpredictable.
So run from anyone who predicts confidently where China is headed. One of the few continuities in China over the past 150 years has been periodic and unexpected discontinuity.
Yet whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, something important may have changed.
“It is so significant, for it’s a decisive breach of the ‘Big Silence’,” said Xiao Qiang, founder and editor of China Digital Times. “It’s now public knowledge that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes.”
Xi may be able to reimpose the “Big Silence”, Xiao acknowledged, but, he added, “It’s still a different China.”
That’s partly because while there have been many protests around the country, they typically have been localised ones about labour disputes, land seizures or pollution. In contrast, China’s zero-COVID policy is synonymous with Xi. He owns it. The Chinese who denounce COVID lockdowns know that they are criticising Xi.
Xi has painted himself into a corner, and it will be costly for him to ease up on his hated COVID policy.
This is a problem of Xi’s own making. He refused to import highly effective mRNA vaccines, and China’s effort to vaccinate older people has been anemic. Only 40 per cent of Chinese over 80 have received a booster, so a relaxation of COVID rules could lead to COVID-19 killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Meanwhile, the current zero-COVID policy has devastated the economy and antagonised the population. It seems unsustainable.
“People have lost hope,” confided a Chinese friend who is the child of a leader yet now mocks the Communist Party, adding that Beijing “feels quiet and dead.” From business owners to taxi drivers, Chinese citizens are struggling with constant COVID tests and lockdowns — and then on television they see throngs of fans unmasked at World Cup games in Qatar, enjoying a normal life.
The death Wednesday of Jiang Zemin, a former Communist Party leader, complicates the picture. Jiang expanded economic reforms and offered a very limited vision of political reform (for example, he opened up access to The Times website in China in 2001; it was blocked in 2012 under a successor). And deaths of past leaders, including Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang, became ways for Chinese to protest by nominally engaging in mourning.
A hallmark of Chinese protest is that when even the mildest criticisms are banned, people turn to satire and sarcasm — which amounts to mockery of Chinese propaganda.
Gene Sharp, an American scholar who literally wrote the manual for toppling dictators, used to say that one of the biggest threats to tyrants was humour. Autocrats could survive earnest calls for free expression, but they deflated when they were laughed at.
I wonder if that will be the unclothed emperor’s challenge ahead, even if he restores the Big Silence.
Chinese university students have been singing the national anthem because it includes these words (written before the 1949 Communist revolution): “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves . . . The Chinese nation faces its greatest danger.”
It would be awkward to arrest young people for singing the national anthem, but — like that blank paper — everyone knows what it signifies. That may be intolerable for Xi.
“You get three or five people together and sing the national anthem, and you’ll be arrested,” predicted a veteran Chinese journalist who also covered Tiananmen.
When police show up, protesters have sometimes switched to chanting satirical slogans in favour of the zero-COVID policy, like, “We want COVID tests!”
When Beijing protesters were criticised for being pawns of foreign forces, one didn’t miss a beat as he worked the crowd. “By foreign forces,” he asked, “are you referring to Marx and Engels?”
Chinese netizens these days discuss “banana peels” (xiang jiao pi) and “shrimp moss” (xia tai). Why? Because the former has the same initials as Xi Jinping. And “shrimp moss” sounds like the Chinese for “step down”.
A dictator’s dilemma: How do you arrest people for posting about banana peels without adding to the ridicule that undermines your rule?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes — for coverage of the Tiananmen democracy movement in China and columns about mass atrocities in Darfur, Sudan — and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.