How Do You Protest in the Face of Censorship? An Empty Sign.

If brevity is the soul of wit, as some wag once said, maybe no words is the wittiest option of all. Late in November, at least 10 people died in a high-rise fire in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, in western China. It was widely believed that Covid restrictions prevented the victims from escaping, and anger spilled into the streets, first in Urumqi and then across China, where stringent anti-Covid measures have subjected citizens to home lockdowns, constant testing and confinement in grim quarantine centers. Demonstrators appeared in cities and on college campuses, criticizing Covid policies or even denouncing the Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping. Many brandished a symbol of protest: plain, unmarked sheets of white paper.

Transfixing videos emerged. At a vigil in Shanghai, mourners held sheets of paper aloft as candles flickered. Students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University wielded sheets of paper and bellowed slogans calling for democracy and freedom of expression. At another Beijing rally, a crowd waved blank paper while chanting against Covid protocols. One much-shared tweet featured someone hurling stacks of paper into the air amid city traffic. Another viral clip showed a dramatic piece of street theater: a young woman marching among pedestrians holding a sheet of paper, her mouth covered with black tape, her wrists bound with chains.

Commentators were quick to interpret the meaning of the “white-paper protests.” A blank sign is both a symbol and a tactic. It is a passive-aggressive protest against censorship, a sarcastic performance of compliance that signals defiance. Its power rests in a shared understanding, by both the public and the authorities, of the unwritten message; it rests also in the awareness that to say anything at all is to run afoul of a government that brooks no opposition, suppressing even the suggestion of an intention to speak. A tweet posted days after the fire showed a photo of a man, apparently in a Shanghai mall, holding a sign reading, “You know what I want to say.” According to the tweet, he was taken away by the police.

In the days after the fire, Chinese Communist Party censors moved to expunge hashtags like “A4Revolution” (a reference to the size of the paper) and “white paper exercise” from social media. A sheet of paper may be the ultimate “analog” artifact, but it has emerged as an unusually potent digital-age totem — a meme that is rebounding in fascinating ways between the street and the virtual world. For all the tumult at the barricades, the white signs may reveal more about algorithms, data flow and the way images and ideas resonate online.

Understand the Situation in China

The Communist Party cast aside restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which  set off mass protests that were a rare challenge to the Communist leadership.

  • Traumatized and Deflated: Gripped with grief and anxiety, many in China want a national reckoning over the hard-line Covid policy. Holding the government accountable may be a quixotic quest.
  • A Cloudy Picture: Despite Beijing’s assurances that the situation is under control, data on infections has become more opaque amid loosened pandemic constraints.
  • In Beijing: As Covid sweeps across the Chinese capital, Beijing looks like a city in the throes of a lockdown — this time, self-imposed by residents.
  • Importance of Vaccines: As the government drops its restrictions, it not only needs to convince people that the virus is nothing to fear, but also that inoculations are essential.

The antecedents of white-paper protests stretch back at least as far as 1924, when a Krakow newspaper reportedly published a blank special supplement as a satirical rebuke to censors. In 1965, an episode of “Candid Camera” featured a prank in which protesters with blank placards picketed in front of a vacant lot in New York. Four years later, students at a high school in Toronto held a mock sit-in featuring blank signs and a blank list of “demands.” An Associated Press report about the protest bore the cheeky headline “ , Students Demand.”

In retrospect, those 1960s stunts seem ideologically conservative: They were parodies, staged at the height of the civil rights era and the Vietnam War, that mocked the very idea of protest. But in recent times, citizens have turned the comedy of blank signs in the opposite direction. The signs have been used as props in pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, and by Russian opponents of the Ukraine invasion. In September, following Queen Elizabeth’s death, anti-monarchy demonstrators were reportedly arrested in Scotland. Soon more protesters appeared — now carrying blank signs.

These signs tell an absurdist joke, ridiculing both censorship and those who enforce it. They function as bait: When security forces — often uniformed and well armed — detain a citizen holding a blank sign, the paranoia and irrationality of state power is thrown into relief. Like a shrewd act of internet trolling, the blank sign is a button-pusher that lures its target into a revealing self-own.

Traditional protest symbols, like banners and flags, may have less currency in the social media age. The emblems that capture the imagination tend to be humble and unexpected, with the feel of organic memes, like the umbrellas used as shields in Hong Kong. Often, these symbols strike notes of irony and absurdity. In Thailand, pro-democracy demonstrators have embraced an even more unlikely icon than white paper: inflatable rubber ducks.

China’s blank signs have proved to be superlative meme-fodder. T-shirts have popped up featuring an illustration of Winnie-the-Pooh reading a blank page — a double joke aimed at Xi Jinping, who was likened to A.A. Milne’s roly-poly bear in memes that are banned on the Chinese internet. The signs have inspired more ambitious spectacles. Ai Weiwei, the exiled Chinese artist, posted an Instagram video in which he is shown writing a free-speech message on blank paper in UV invisible ink. A performance-art piece featured a woman covered in white paper being sprayed with red paint by a person in a hazmat suit reminiscent of China’s P.P.E.-clad “big whites.”

Internet battles between protesters and the powers that be are heightened in China, where the internet is heavily censored and a surveillance dragnet sweeps up life online and off. From the moment protests erupted in Urumqi, skirmishes began between users uploading images of demonstrations and the state’s censorship apparatus, which worked to obliterate all traces of them. Users employed trickery to evade the algorithms designed to catch outlawed content: They recorded videos of videos, or rotated them on their sides, or used V.P.N.s to “store” data on sites like Twitter and Instagram, outside the purview of Chinese censors. These efforts to find cracks in the country’s “great firewall” have been essential to the protests. There is reason to believe they have been a success: The Chinese government has since taken steps to curb its strict Covid guidelines.

Of course, protesters may still face harsh consequences, especially those who dared to voice broader critiques of China’s authoritarianism. But their criticisms linger in all that white paper, blank signs that carry echoes of ideas from across decades and centuries. There is the famous paradox of John Cage: “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” There’s the blank page in Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy,” and the white-on-white paintings of Robert Ryman — artworks whose eloquent emptiness is pregnant with possibility, expressing the ineffable. The blank sign, for the protester who wields it and the government that disdains it, is full of potential: It is a tabula rasa, upon which every imaginable complaint, exhortation, remonstration, provocation, taunt, threat and irrefutable truth might someday be inscribed. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that those things are already written there — figuratively, at least — in invisible ink. The signs say nothing; they speak volumes.

Source photograph: Ben Marans/SOPA Images/LightRocket, via Getty Images

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