Protestors hold white sheets of paper at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Protestors in China are voicing their outrage over the country’s strict COVID-19 lockdown policies, demanding increased freedom and calling for President Xi Jinping to step down. With protests spreading across the country, a rare moment of nationwide dissent is taking place in China.

As the protests continue into today, Monday, November 28, a symbol has emerged — a blank white sheet of paper held by gathered crowds, an image that circumvents the extreme censorship and stunted freedom of speech under the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

This is not the first time white paper has been used in China to symbolize dissent. In 2020, protestors in Hong Kong used the symbol to criticize China’s new security law, which made it easier for mainland China to persecute protestors. The concept seems to originate from a Soviet joke in which a man in Moscow’s Red Square is arrested for handing out blank fliers that turn out to be blank.

“The white paper represent [sic] everything we want to say but cannot say,” a protestor who participated in a Liangma River action told Reuters.

The protests began Friday after an apartment fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi killed 10 people Thursday night. Many blamed the deaths on the strict zero-COVID policies that kept much of China under tight lockdown. Those rules may have prevented residents from escaping as the government has locked doors from the outside to prevent exposed citizens from leaving their apartments. The policy also allegedly prevented firefighters from responding quickly and moving their trucks close enough to the blaze (residents said the batteries of their parked cars were drained after they could not leave their apartments to drive).

Friday’s disaster compounds other recent tragedies caused by China’s zero-COVID policy. Among them, a 14-year-old girl died in a quarantine facility in late October, arguably for not receiving adequate medical care; a bus carrying people to a quarantine facility crashed and killed 27 people in September; and this spring, Shanghai suffered food shortages amid lockdown protocol.

As the protests have erupted across China, the government has arrested protestors (the number of detained protestors is unclear) and continues to erase critical comments and posts from the internet. Online, people have posted walls of ironic text to voice their dissent, comprising words such as “good” and “correct.”

Students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University also found a workaround by holding up sheets of paper that depict a math equation by Alexander Friedmann. In Chinese, Friedmann’s surname is a homonym for “free man.”

As actions have continued, protesters have shifted their focus from outrage over the COVID-19 lockdowns to calls against China’s authoritarian government and surveillance state, even demanding that President Xi Jinping steps down. In Beijing, protestors chanted, “We want freedom! We want freedom!” and university students yelled, “Democracy and rule of law! Freedom of expression!”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.