The tragedy came as frustrations with zero-Covid policies were already starting to spike. Violent confrontations had broken out between workers and security at a Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou that manufactures iPhones. Scott Kennedy, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, DC, says that when he visited Beijing and Shanghai in September and October, it was clear that people had “grown weary” of measures like regular PCR testing, scanning QR “health codes” to go anywhere, and the constant specter of a fresh lockdown. “I’m not surprised that things have boiled over,” Kennedy says. The government in early November signaled some restrictions would soon loosen, but the Urumqi fire and news that Covid cases were rising again, he says, “pushed people over the edge.”
Like people around the world, Chinese citizens tired of lockdowns turned to their phones to express their anger. Their familiarity with censorship and how to avoid it helped propel the protests and also helped provide inspiration for what might become their enduring symbol. Protesters held aloft white sheets of paper and posted white squares online, a motif seen by many as at least in part a reference to censorship. White is also the color of mourning in China, and the protests are being called the “A4 Revolution, or “white paper revolution” 白纸革命.
Protesters turned to now-familiar censorship evasion techniques, such as posting screengrabs to avoid text filters or adding filters to videos before sharing to sidestep automated detection systems. Protests were referred to using coded language, such as “going for a walk.”
For Chinese netizens, using puns, memes, and other tricks to evade censorship is old hat, although they are more often used to grumble or vent about the government than to encourage mass defiance. In the past week, they’ve been posting screengrabs of close-captioned music videos, or ironically flooding official posts with comments like “good” or “correct.”
In the past three years, as the domestic internet has become more heavily regulated, people have become more savvy about using VPNs and US social platforms like Twitter and Instagram to access and spread information, says one Chinese national currently in Hong Kong. Chat app Telegram and Apple’s AirDrop local file-sharing feature provide essential ways to spread information about protests, although Apple recently tweaked AirDrop in China so phones are only visible to others nearby for 10 minutes at a time. Collectively, those digital tools fostered widespread awareness and coordination of the protests taking place across China. The movement showed unusual cross-class and cross-ethnic unity, the person in Hong Kong says, with migrant workers, ethnic minorities, feminist groups, and students all joining demonstrations.
Toward the end of last weekend, government efforts to clamp down on the protests were becoming evident—both on city streets and the internet. The Guangzhou tech worker says that on Sunday night when he approached an area where protesters with signs were gathering, there were about 200 police officers on the scene, too, dispersed through the crowd to prevent large groups from forming. He left but heard that later in the night protesters scuffled with police. In the following days, he says, some protesters who were in the area were contacted by police, likely using location data gathered from their phones. By early this week, news wires reported that police were out in force in mainland cities where protests had ocurred, and in some places they were checking people’s phones for VPNs or apps such as Telegram.