Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) practiced the heavy-handed and inhuman “zero-Covid” policy. However, while these measures played a role in stalling the pandemic in China, they have also seriously interfered with personal liberties of the Chinese people and struck a blow to China’s economy.
People’s anger over the strict lockdowns erupted on November 27th and was labeled the White Paper Movement. This name came up as the people protested in the streets holding blank sheets of paper. This was a way of protesting while at the same time trying to avoid being targeted by the police. After the protests broke out, the Chinese government lifted the zero-Covid policy, and the movement has since subsided.
The Chinese government’s decision to drastically lift the prevention measures has caused a major outbreak. Statistics show that the number of confirmed cases in a single day in China has exceeded 37 million on December 20; the total confirmed cases have exceeded 250 million, a figure higher than the population of the United States. China’s National Health Commission (NHC) has canceled the release of daily epidemic statistics since December 26. The real number of confirmed cases and deaths may be far higher than the estimates.
This article aims to analyze the developments from the White Paper movement to the current outbreak in China, focusing on the following important issues: In China, where political participation and free speech are completely prohibited, protesting in the streets is a risk for one’s own safety, the White Paper Movement spread all across major cities and university campuses. Why is that? Why did the Chinese government backtrack on this and lifted the prevention measures? Why did the movement fade away? And the most important question, what will happen to the Chinese people in the face of the new outbreak?
The spark of the White Paper movement
On November 24th, a fire broke out in a residence building in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Residents reacted quickly. Horrifyingly, the exits and emergency pathways had been blocked as part of the lockdown measures, making it impossible for residents to escape. When the fire fighters arrived, roadside fences, also part of the lockdown infrastructure, prevented the fire engines and personnel from accessing the building, and the rescue operation was delayed. The fire on the 15th floor burned all the way up to the 21st floor. Official accounts reported a total of 10 deaths and 9 injuries (unofficial reports speak about 44 dead).
This tragedy attracted a lot of attention on the Chinese internet. The local government’s attempt in the press conference to shrug off responsibilities only fueled the anger of people all over the country.
Citizens of Urumqi launched a protest movement and attracted national support. The Communication University of Nanjing was the first to respond. During the vigil for the deceased, students held up blank papers in protest. Crowds of citizens and students also gathered in Wuhan, Hangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai and other cities, holding up pieces of blank paper. You can still find videos of these protests on Chinese social networks. Many have also been replicated on Twitter and Instagram.
The struggle at Foxconn factory in October was also relevant to these developments. On October 31, the BBC reported a covid outbreak at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, Henan. In order not to disrupt manufacturing, the local government and company management took measures to keep or in some cases even force workers to stay on the job. Tens of thousands of workers left on foot along the road, unable to find a hotel to stay, and had to rely on helpful citizens along the way (Video). An old employee named Zhang Ming told Chinese Philanthropist details about how the lockdown in the factory was gradually tightened and fear spread amongst workers. Even Hu Xjin, former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, criticized the local media indirectly on Weibo for their failure to report the event due to censorship, turning the internet into the source of information and causing confusion. This just shows how much this event has affected public opinion about lockdown measures.
Something else that shocked the Chinese public opinion was the Qatar World Cup. When the World Cup kicked off on November 20, people could see live on TV the audience without masks, which naturally confused them. “Have they done testing?”, “why don’t they wear masks?” were questions on people’s minds. It felt like a different world from what they experience everyday with strict lockdowns. For the Chinese people, this event was very impactful.
Looking back on the past three years since the Covid outbreak, China has maintained a strict practice of comprehensive quarantines. A huge number of Chinese people experienced lockdowns at their own homes. Neighborhoods were locked down, sometimes whole cities. During lockdowns, PCR tests were administered every day, which is practically meaningless. Personal freedom was severely curtailed.
Take Shanghai for example; when an outbreak took place in March this year, the implementation of a harsh lockdown was a man-made disaster that the Shanghai citizens found themselves in. The “Voices of April” video exposed the chaos and cruelty of the Shanghai lockdown. Some residents of locked down neighborhoods couldn’t obtain basic food items and starved to death. The logistics of medicines and food distribution was in total chaos. Families were separated; patients were put in buses to fend for themselves. Countless human tragedies took place.
It can be said that the White Paper movement did not occur out of nowhere, but was an expression of the frustration and anger of the Chinese people over the zero-Covid policy for the past three years or so.
The White paper movement was not a revolution
Days after the protests spread, both the central and local governments signaled the acceleration of the lifting of the zero-Covid policy. In Shanghai, Beijing and other places, zero-Covid policies were indeed loosened.
The press conference of the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the Chinese State Council on November 29th put focus on the implementation of the new policy. The director of the Administration of Disease Control and Prevention admitted that
“Prevention and control measures were over-simplified, scaled up at each level. ‘One size fits all’ implementations neglected the needs of the people. Some local administrations arbitrarily expanded the area and categories of control, solving everything with lockdowns. Some local administrations prolonged lockdowns. Some local administrations performed lockdowns without approval. Long lockdowns must be corrected and avoided”.
This equals the public admission that the zero-covid policy was a failure, and shows that the White Paper movement has won some concessions, although limited ones.
It is clear that China’s heavy-handed censorship and public security apparatuses will surely go after protesters. The protest slogans varied from place to place. “Long live the people! Peace for the Deceased!”, “No to PCR tests, Yes to Freedom!”, “Xi Jinping out! Communist Party out!” were some examples. But the most common demands in Chinese cities were for lifting lockdowns and loosening the zero-Covid policies.
In other words, the main demand of the protests was a “return to normality”. It contained no ideological confrontation, nor an attempt to a general political reform. At best, they gave special attention to the marginalized population, but protecting their own rights was still the main motivation.
Slogans that called for Xi Jinping or the Communist Party to step down were rare, but were amplified by media hostile to the Chinese regime. Whether the protesters have become radicalized and this awakened a sense of resistance to the CCP dictatorship, and to what extent, is worth more scrutiny.
Finally, if we look at the participants in this movement, we see that they are mainly middle-class urban residents and college students. Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Chongqing, where the scale of protests was relatively large, are cities with relatively high economic development in China. The protesters there are more likely to belong to the urban middle class. With the exception of the Foxconn protest, it is difficult to find large-scale working class participation. This means that the social forces behind the White Paper protests are not yet in a position to shake the foundations of the state capitalist system, and it is still far to be characterised a revolution.
The way the lockdowns were implemented by the CCP bureaucracy was the reason behind the protests. The mass sentiment of the White Paper movement was the frustration from the inconvenience caused by the lockdown policies, rather than expectations for political reform. The common demands were to put a stop to the PCR tests and to lockdowns, and to have a return to normal life as it was before the pandemic.
This demand, of course, was not in itself revolutionary. Combined with the fact that the working class is not organised and was not at the forefront of the struggle, it helps understand the current political reality, which is that after the government lifted prevention measures, the White Paper movement faded away in a short period of time.
Having said this, we cannot underestimate the impact that the White Paper Movement had on consciousness, being the broadest and most important social movement since the time of the Tiananmen movement of 1989. Though it is not possible to measure accurately this impact from the outside, it is clear and beyond doubt that the leadership of the CCP is exposed and weakened and this lays the foundation for more movements in the future and for a search for radical ideas inside the working class and particularly the youth.
The drastic lifting of control measures was a criminal decision
The drastic lifting of pandemic measures is not followed by the return to the normal life that some people hoped for.
Although the latest Omicron strain has gradually become mild, due to its high contagiousness, even with the low fatality rate, it could still overwhelm China’s medical system. In Q2, when Omicron broke out in the US, NBC reported Dr. Jeremy Faust’s research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that Omicron’s excess death toll in Massachusetts was higher than that of Delta. The Global Views Monthly published an excerpt from the book of public health expert Chiou Shu-ti, which also showed that the fatality rate of Omicron has been seriously underestimated due to the phenomenon of delayed death, and the health impact of Omicron is even 10 times more than that of Alpha.
Reuters reported that the United States experienced a peak in Omicron cases at the beginning of this year, and the surge in hospitalizations overwhelmed the medical system. In the studies of various countries, the fatality rate of Omicron ranges from 0.3% at the highest to 0.1% at the lowest. The total population of the United States is about 300 million. So far, more than 100 million people have been infected with Covid, and the death toll of one million already had a serious impact on American society. If one third of China’s population is to be infected with Omicron, the actual number of deaths will be even more horrifying- we could be counting millions of dead. In addition, China’s medical system is not as advanced as that of the United States, and the situation is bound to be even worse.
More accurate researches put the number even higher. In May, Bloomberg reported that the Shanghai Fudan University published a study in Nature showing that, if the Chinese government abandons the zero-Covid policy, China will face the risk of a tsunami-style outbreak. In particular, compared with other developed countries, China’s medical resources are very limited. China’s ICU bed capacity is around 3.6 per 100.000 inhabitants, while the US figure is 34.7!
Official statistics as of December 13 claimed a vaccination rate of 90% for the elderly over 60 years old, and a booster coverage of 70% (184.17 million people); the booster coverage for the elderly over 80 years old is only 50% (15.15 million people). In addition, the vaccination rate and effectiveness of China’s vaccine are also in question. An independent survey in Europe compared five vaccines and found that the effectiveness of the Sinopharm vaccine was the lowest. The Chinese vaccine market has a history of vaccine fraud, long before Covid. The Chinese government has been lax on food and drug supervision, leading to deaths and disabilities caused by vaccine contamination in the past, fraud of fake vaccines, etc. According to Xinhua, in February last year, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security cracked a crime ring manufacturing and selling fake Covid vaccines in Jiangsu, Beijing, Shandong and other places, and seized 3,000 fake vaccine samples.
Chinese scholar Jiang Yu’s criticism also pointed out the above-mentioned problems. Jiang also pointed out that China does not have a hierarchical hospital network, and big hospitals can be overwhelmed easily. We also cannot rule out the possibility of the emergence of new variants appearing in China after it opens up. Also, in Chinese society, social status and structural importance of the elderly and children are different from those in Europe and the United States, and this could cause wide-ranging social disturbances. If the full opening up is not coupled with coverage of high-quality vaccines and ICU resources, all hell could break loose again as in 2019: hospitals will be overwhelmed with patients, corpses will pile up in the aisles, medical staff will be attacked in desperation for treatment, medical workers will collapse under pressure, patients in quarantine left to die, with helpless families left to witness their death…
This is why the demand for lifting lockdowns must also be coupled with demands to solve the medical resource shortage.
The current pandemic crisis
The Chinese state, however, chose to drastically lift the zero-Covid policies basically in order to maintain economic growth. As a result, China has triggered a new pandemic crisis!
In addition to nearly 250 million cases (the actual number may be higher), the Initium reported that by the end of December, the accumulated rate of infection is close to 20%. And this is not just in large cities; many provinces are starting to experience peaks in cases, threatening tier 2, tier 3 cities and rural areas. In response to the large-scale outbreak, many countries have adopted measures to control the entry of Chinese tourists.
By December 27, the National Health and Medical Commission also issued a statement that the number of available intensive care beds across the country has reached a “critical low”. According to a Reuters report, Beijing’s hospitals are quickly overcrowded, and medical supplies are nearly depleted. This reflects the impact on China’s medical resources by the pandemic. Countless people cannot buy medicines, or even be seen by doctors. Furthermore, the Lunar New Year migration at the end of January is very likely to spread the virus to rural areas in China, where medical resources are even more scarce.
The lifting of the zero-Covid policy has been a disaster. The White Paper movement wanted a return to normal life, but what we have is anything but normal life. However, the chaos that has been created by the end of the zero-Covid policy has not led to a new movement against the Chinese Communist Party. This shows the political limitations of the White Paper Movement, although as mentioned above its long-term impact in radicalizing consciousness will be important.
What is to be done?
Although the White Paper movement has subsided, we should still explain its significance, support the freedom of speech and organisation of the Chinese people and defend human life under the threat of the virus. We should expose lazy bureaucratic practices and the social Darwinism behind the drastic lifting of lockdowns and demand funding in medical resources and high-quality vaccines.
The CCP dictatorship implemented the zero-Covid policy out of fear for the consequences if things got out of hand, and consciously used it to control the population. Now, they turn to its opposite, risking millions of lives in order to maintain economic growth, without making any serious effort to invest in medical care.
These developments show that overthrowing the dictatorship of the Communist Party of China and establishing a democratically planned socialist economic system must be the primary political goal of the Chinese people.