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China protestsvia Twitter (@SiuTat_Mung)

Why are protestors in China holding up blank sheets of paper?

Chinese citizens are boldly fighting back against the country’s stringent lockdown rules by holding up plain pieces of paper – here, we explain this unusual protest tactic

Over the weekend, people gathered in Shanghai for a vigil to remember the ten people who died in an apartment block fire in Urumqi. Crowds flocked to the Wulumuqi Road area of the city, many holding candles – and blank pieces of paper.

Across the country, from Beijing to Wuzhen, Chinese citizens have been brandishing plain paper as a symbol of protest. But what are they protesting? And why are they holding blank sheets of paper? Here, we break down this new, defiant trend.


At present, China is subject to strict lockdown measures in a bid to combat COVID-19 as cases surge across the country. As it stands, local authorities must impose strict lockdowns if there are just a few COVID cases in an area and people with COVID are forced to isolate at home, or else placed under quarantine at government facilities. Tens of millions of people have been living under some kind of lockdown, leading to protestors calling for rules to be eased.

Tensions in Shanghai boiled over at the vigil for the victims of the Urumqi fire, as while Chinese state media said the residential block had been categorised as ‘low risk’ for COVID and residents were able to go downstairs, another resident told the BBC people were only allowed to leave their homes for short periods each day and only when authorities permitted them to do so.

But the protests aren’t just in Shanghai, nor are they solely about Urumqi. Fury over stringent lockdown measures across the country is now being channelled into one of the biggest shows of collective action against government policy in recent years. Photos and videos online show masses of people taking to the streets holding blank pieces of paper in the cities of Nanjing and Beijing. At one large-scale protest near Liangma Bridge in Beijing on Sunday, people held up white paper and chanted: “No to our leaders, yes to voting. We won't be slaves, we are citizens.” 

In another video, filmed in Wuzhen, one young woman can be seen walking through the streets with chains around her wrists, tape over her mouth, and a sheet of paper in her hands.


China is an authoritarian state with harsh punishments for dissenters, and as a result, it’s very rare for people to publicly criticise the ruling Communist Party leaders.

The blank paper is intended to be a comment on this state-sanctioned censorship and make a statement about protesters being silenced. It’s also a way of defying authorities, as protestors cannot be arrested for holding signs which aren’t explicitly critical of the government. Internet users showed solidarity with protestors by posting blank white squares or photos of themselves holding blank sheets of paper on instant messaging platform WeChat or social network Weibo. By Sunday morning, however, the online hashtag “white paper exercise” was blocked by censors.

White is also a funeral colour in China, so it’s possible the plain paper is also meant to acknowledge the deaths that have occurred as a result of the country’s COVID policies. As well as the ten people who died in the Urumqi fire, there has also been one pregnant woman who miscarried after being refused entry to a hospital in January; a bus crash that killed 27 passengers who were being transferred to a quarantine facility; and one young boy who died from gas poisoning while under lockdown in his home in Lanzhou.

While most of the anti-government protests have been largely peaceful so far, people in cities like Shanghai were met with violence from the police.


This isn’t the first time protestors have harnessed the power of a blank piece of paper. 

In March this year, Russian police arrested demonstrators for holding blank signs in protest against the Ukraine War. Police in Nizhny Novgorod arrested a demonstrator today for protesting with a blank sign. Welcome to Russia in 2022,” tweeted Kevin Rothrock at the time, editor for the English edition of independent news outlet Meduza.

In the UK, following the death of the Queen, a barrister named Paul Powslesland expressed his dissatisfaction with the monarchy by holding up an A3 sheet of paper in Parliament Square. He’d chosen not to write ‘Not My King’ on the sheet, as he couldn’t afford to be arrested as he had to represent a client the next day. Still, he was threatened with arrest by a police officer. Others followed suit and also held blank signs to protest the monarchy outside St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh where the Queen lay in state.

In our age of censorship and oppression, a sheet of blank, unspoiled paper is emerging as a powerful protest symbol. Its overriding message is one of defiance: by holding blank paper, protestors in oppressive nations wrestle power back from the authorities who wish to silence them, simultaneously mocking draconian censorship practices while daring police to arrest them for merely expressing their intention to voice a political opinion and refusal to be silenced. As the BBC’s China Correspondent, Stephen McDonnell, put it: “This is not only a statement about dissent being silenced here, it’s also an ‘up yours’ to the authorities, as if to say: ‘Are you going to arrest me for holding a sign saying nothing?”