(New York) – The Chinese government should permit commemorations of the one-year anniversary of China’s nationwide “White Paper” protests, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should release all those detained for publicly criticizing the government’s pandemic response, and stop censoring protest-related information on social media.
In late November 2022, thousands of people in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan, and other cities across China took to the streets to protest the government’s strict Covid-19 measures and some also denounced the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule. Demonstrators held blank papers to symbolize censorship—hence “White Paper” protests—and chanted slogans such as “End zero-Covid,” “We want human rights,” and “Down with the Communist Party!” The authorities harassed or detained dozens of students, journalists, and others—notably many women—who participated in the protests.
“One year on from the White Paper protests that were key to ending three years of abusive ‘zero-Covid’ lockdowns, the Chinese government needs to allow safe public space for people to freely express themselves,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should promptly and unconditionally release all those detained for peacefully criticizing the government’s pandemic response, and those involved in the protests.”
The protests were in response to a fire on November 24, 2022, at an apartment building under lockdown in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. At least 10 people were killed, reportedly because they were prevented from escaping the blaze due to strict pandemic lockdown controls.
A few days after the broad-based protests, the government abruptly lifted most of the Covid-19 restrictions nationwide. Much of the population—and the medical establishment—was unprepared for the government’s sudden action; and Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths surged.
Some of the protesters detained were released days later. Others were released after several months. But Kamile Wayit, a 19-year-old Uyghur student, remains detained in Xinjiang for “promoting extremism” after she shared online a video of the protests.
A 23-year-old Chinese student in Hong Kong, Zeng Yuxuan, who participated in the White Paper protests in Hong Kong, was sentenced to six months in prison for “sedition,” for commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. She has since been deported to the mainland and subjected to enforced disappearance.
Peng Lifa, who staged a lone protest on a Beijing bridge in mid-October 2022, and who helped inspire the White Paper protests a month later, was also disappeared.
While the White Paper protests have subsided, many young people in China, particularly in coastal cities, and others studying abroad have continued to criticize the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping’s rule, Human Rights Watch said.
In late October, thousands of young people in Shanghai celebrated Halloween, some dressed in costumes such as CCTV cameras and the early twentieth-century Chinese essayist and social critic Lu Xun that subtly mocked the Chinese government’s repression.
In November, crowds of people across the country mourned the unexpected death of former Premier Li Keqiang. People posted online one of Li’s recent quotes: “China's reform and opening-up will continue to move on, just like the Yangtze River and the Yellow River can’t flow backward,” as a subtle criticism of Xi. For many, Li represented a more economically vibrant China, in contrast to Xi.
“The Chinese government’s efforts to maintain strict social control have not deterred people across China from trying to make spaces to promote universal values like justice and accountability,” Pearson said. “Ten years into Xi Jinping’s increasingly repressive rule, the undercurrents for a more just China continue to animate many people in China today.”