Opinion: The comedic creativity of Chinese protesters

Editor’s note: Christopher Rea is the former director and professor of the Center for China Studies at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of The Age of Disrespect: A New History of Laughter in China. Jeffrey Wasserstrom teaches Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of The Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, and is editor of the Oxford History of Modern China. The views expressed in this review are their own. Read more opinion pieces on CNN.


It turned the most powerful man in the country into a teddy bear.

It added a hypothetical May 35th to the calendar to evoke a popular uprising that government censors are trying to erase from memory.

It mobilizes the public to expose sexual predators with the unlikely affirmation “Rice Bunny!”

Co-authors Christopher Freya and Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

We are, of course, referring to a quality that is common among the Chinese people but not shared by its leaders—the creativity of humor.

May 35 stands for “June 4th,” the Chinese shorthand for the 1989 massacre, commonly known in English as “Tiananmen,” a phrase that censors in the People’s Republic of China have sought to remove from the Internet.

The emoji of a bowl of cereal and a bunny is another solution. When censors banned the phrase “#MeToo,” an alternate meme emerged: rice (“mi”) and rabbit (“tu”). More on bear below.

If the People’s Republic of China conjures up images of a rising great power, a strategic competitor, a powerful dictatorship, you probably think of its government. The party-state has consistently convinced the world through the bellicose public statements of its leaders that China’s political sphere has no sense of humor.

Police block off streets in Urumqi, named after the city of Urumqi, in Shanghai, Nov. 27, 2022, the night before protests against China's zero-Covid policy following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang.  (Photo by Hector Retamar/AFP) (Photo by Hector Retamar/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Chilling’: Protesters tell CNN what’s the mood in China

Nothing could be further from the truth. Chinese humor has a rich and varied history of feeding on political stupidity and its aftermath.

Consider the recent protests that have engulfed cities across China. Last week in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, a fire in an apartment building killed 10 people who are believed to have died under a strict Covid-19 lockdown that made it difficult for them to escape. The tragedy sparked a public backlash against “zero COVID-19” policies that left millions feeling trapped and helpless, with no escape for these particular victims.

Protesters in Beijing hold blank paper during a demonstration against China's zero-Covid measures on November 27.

People who take to the streets against the Chinese government can be detained, arrested — or worse. This is especially true for those who dare to chant slogans like some, not just to lift the lockdown but to bring about broader political change. Yet this mourning and seriousness has been fermented by jokes: parodies of official rhetoric, jeers from censors and a cavalier take on paternalistic leadership.

When state media tried to smear the protests as the work of “foreigners” (a typical tactic also favored by other authoritarian governments such as Russia and Iran), student In Beijing responded with sarcasm. “Who might those foreigners be?” they replied. Perhaps the ideological idols, Marx and Engels, imposed on the people by the Chinese Communist Party for generations?

Last week, students at Tsinghua University in Beijing were seen holding up paper with physics equations from the 1920s. If you’re that smart, it seems to say, decipher it! Chinese netizens have done the job, tracing the allusion back to Alexander Friedman, who not only has a surname that suggests liberation, but theorizes that the universe is – at least for those not locked down – possibly – Expansion.

Yet the defining hallmark of the protests has been holding up a blank slate, filling in its own punchlines for the absurd joke of Chinese state repression. Chinese social media has dubbed the protests the “blank page movement” or “white paper revolution” (or sometimes using the term “A4” to refer to objects held up due to the size of the paper).

Every blank sheet of paper represents an unjust absence, just as Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony symbolized the tragedy of the laureate’s imprisonment as a political prisoner in China. Liu eventually died in custody.

A blank sheet of paper can also explain the problem. It pokes fun at censorship, a system in which almost any word can become taboo. It renders individuals unrecognizable in a state of mass surveillance, denying that state its intrusive privileges. When a person says nothing, their words are not taken away.

All the White Pages also ignore the “Big Whites” (“Great White”), frontline enforcers of Covid-19 policy who wear full-body PPE, making them look a bit like Stormtroopers from Star Wars.

Use a blank sheet of paper to draw attention to Chinese government censorship dating back to the days before the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Even now, newspaper editors sometimes signal to readers that content has been cut by leaving a blank space on the page, known as a “light in the sky.”

In 2020, Hong Kong also used the blank sheet of paper to mock a new national security law that severely curbs freedoms and marks China’s end to its commitment to respect Hong Kong’s legal autonomy, known as “one country, two systems.”

For us, white paper also evokes the aesthetic practice of “left blank” or “left blank”, a practice used by Chinese painters for over 1,500 years to engage the viewer, deliberately leaving blank spaces in compositions, leaving room for imagination .

In 1958, Chairman Mao called the Chinese people “poor and white”. Even as China gets richer, its leaders want the Chinese people to remain a canvas on which they can write their messages.

The blank page movement caught these leaders off guard.

Few expected so many simultaneous protests in so many different places. Thousands of protests have taken place in mainland China in recent decades, but since 1989 they have tended to be limited to specific locations (e.g. demonstrations against polluting factories), involve only one social group (e.g. strikes) or target A foreign power that the government encourages, or at least tolerates (such as the demonstrations sparked by the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade).

Students hold up placards including blank paper on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Nov. 28 in solidarity with protests against Beijing's Covid-19 restrictions on the mainland.

The events in late November were unusual in that they erupted simultaneously in multiple places, involved different groups of people, and targeted policies championed by China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

Which brings us back to Winnie the Pooh.

Xi Winnie the Pooh became a meme in 2013 when the leader was photographed striding next to then-US President Barack Obama, and it was noticed that it was similar to the chubby Pooh walking next to Tigger The striking similarities. When meeting Xi Jinping in 2014, the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly became Pooh’s brooding-eyed sidekick, Eeyore.

Animals have been featured in Chinese political discussions for more than a century. “Lackling” has long been a favorite label for accusing an enemy of being a lackey of some greater power. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who died this week, became the focus of the Xi era’s “toad cult,” a nostalgia for a former leader who was at least interesting compared to Xi.

The best precedent for the Winnie the Pooh phenomenon, though, involves a president and an ape. The president was military strongman Yuan Shikai, who in 1912 overthrew the Republic of China’s founding interim president, Sun Yat-sen, and proclaimed himself head of state. In 1915, Yuan Shikai proclaimed himself emperor. Even before this, cartoonists had depicted Yuan as an ape (元), a word that looked and sounded the same as Yuan’s surname.

In 2018, Xi Jinping pushed through a constitutional reform that removed the need for the president, one of his many titles, to step down after two five-year terms. Xi Jinping’s ambition to become a lifelong ruler has inspired critics to post pictures of Winnie the Pooh in royal robes and a crown. Others just posted pictures of Yuan. They suggest that Mr. Xi is like that earlier ruler, whose brief time as emperor is considered a ludicrous low point in modern Chinese history. The censors were quickly working overtime to clean up the crown bears and king monkeys online.

Imperial Winnie encapsulates key moments in the Xi saga. Now, a new Winnie the Pooh meme is doing the same for what could be a new twist in China. It shows the bear holding a blank sheet of paper, staring at it quizzically, wondering what the object is. For a public that knows all too well what a blank sheet of paper means, Pooh’s confusion is amusing.

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