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Updated Nov 28, 2022, 1:11pm EST
East Asia

How protesters in China are adopting symbolic resistance tactics

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The News

Protesters across Chinese cities are adopting clever ways to express dissent. Here are three ways they’ve done so.

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The A4 Revolution

People gather for a vigil and hold white sheets of paper in protest of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, as they commemorate the victims of a fire in Urumqi, as outbreaks of the coronavirus disease continue in Beijing, China.
Reuters/Thomas Peter

A movement dubbed the “A4 Revolution” has emerged across China in recent days, as protesters have taken to the streets, raising blank sheets of paper to represent mounting censorship and the silencing of free speech and dissent.

People hold sheets of paper in protest over coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in mainland China, during a commemoration of the victims of a fire in Urumqi
Reuters/Tyrone Siu

The protest tactic, though used in many global demonstrations before, is likely inspired by the Hong Kong protests in 2020, when pro-democracy activists abandoned overtly political banners and held up blank pieces of paper to avoid prosecution under the city’s National Security Law, which banned secessionist and subversive activity.

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The Friedman Equation

Protesters on university campuses held up papers with the Friedman Equation, a scientific description of the universe’s expansion rate over time.

Though the equation has no direct relevance to the protest, phonetically, it sounds like “free man,” which is why demonstrators have chosen to protest with it.

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The Protest Song

Do You Hear The People Sing — a popular protest anthem from the musical Les Miserables — is trending on Chinese social media. The song also was widely shared and sung during the Hong Kong protests.

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The Expert's View

On why Beijing isn’t launching a full-scale crackdown … yet:

“You allow the ring-leaders to emerge, identify them and arrest them later,” Victor Shih, professor of Chinese politics at UC San Diego, said in an interview. “But frustration is so pervasive — new leaders will emerge every day. There is a sense that there is nothing to lose.”

“Unlike Tiananmen, these protests are decentralized — they are across campuses and wealthy neighborhoods. It’s difficult for the government to deal with because they can pop up anywhere, anytime.”

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