Widespread protests against China’s strict “zero COVID” policy and demanding political freedoms reflect public anger over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) iron grip on power, some overseas Chinese activists said.
Protests have broken out throughout China, and students and other residents have joined the “blank paper movement” in dozens of places after COVID-19 restrictions reportedly delayed rescue efforts in a deadly fire on Thursday last week in Urumqi, Xinjiang, leading to 10 deaths and nine injuries.
Holding up blank sheets of paper has become a metaphor for speech censorship among Chinese.
Han Wu (韓武), a US-based official of the China Democracy Party, which is banned by Beijing, said in Taipei on Tuesday that the protests were instigated by the Communist Youth League (CYL) faction known as tuanpai (團派), in response to Xi’s dominance of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Han said that Xi, after securing a third term as head of the CCP at the party congress in October, removed top officials of the CYL who he considered a threat — Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Wang Yang (汪洋) and Second Vice Premier Hu Chunhua (胡春華).
Subsequently stacking China’s leadership ranks with loyalists was “met with opposition within the CCP and Chinese society,” said Han, who traveled to Taiwan to observe Saturday’s local elections.
University of Western Australia associate professor Jie Chen (陳杰) said he was surprised to see that the demonstrations went beyond COVID-19 restrictions as protestors chanted slogans to demand “democracy, the rule of law, freedom and the right to vote.”
The bold acts have defied a stereotype of the post-1990’s generation being more obedient, having been raised in an education system that stresses nationalism and party loyalty to the CCP, said Chen, who left for Australia to study in 1989.
For a leader such as Xi, who did not hesitate to use force to quell protests in Hong Kong — even at the cost of damaging the its status as an international financial center — there is no reason for optimism that Xi might yield to activist demands, Chen said.
Nonetheless, the protestors have ignited a light of hope for reform in China, he said.
Many people have also taken to WeChat, the main social media space in China, to counter a claim by Chinese authorities that the protests were linked to “foreign forces,” Chen said.
Protesters have questioned how foreign forces could be involved in the protests given China’s censored Internet, the risks of using a virtual private network and restrictions on international travel, Chen said.
Sheng Xue (盛雪), a participant in the Tiananmen Square movement in the late 1980s, said the uprising against COVID-19 restrictions represented a buildup of public anger over time driven by the CCP’s tightening control over society.
After decades of economic growth, China has been able to use a variety of technologies to carry out mass surveillance, turning society into a “big prison” in which people struggle to live normal lives with dignity, autonomy and privacy, said Sheng, who now resides in Canada.
Public fury bottled up for decades was “bound to explode when the time came,” and was sparked by a deadly fire in Urumqi that many people believed the authorities were responsible for, Sheng said.
Chinese protesters have called on Taiwan and the international community to voice support for the “blank paper movement” in China and to urge Chinese authorities to reform national policies.
China’s rights advocates view Taiwan as model for a Chinese transition to democracy, as Taiwan discredits Beijing’s argument that public involvement in governance is incompatible with Chinese culture, Chen said, adding that this highlights the importance of Taiwan voicing support for the movement.
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