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Opinion: The comedic ingenuity of Chinese protesters

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


He turns the most powerful man in the land into a teddy bear.

He adds the imaginary date of May 35 to the calendar to invoke a popular uprising that government censors seek to erase from memory.

He mobilizes audiences to expose sexual predators with the unlikely claim, “Rice Bunny!”

We refer, of course, to a quality as widespread among the Chinese people as it is absent among its leaders: comic ingenuity.

May 35 replaces “June 4,” the Chinese shorthand for the 1989 massacre commonly known as “Tiananmen” in English, and a phrase that censors in the People’s Republic of China attempted to remove from the internet.

Emojis of a bowl of cereal and a little bunny were another workaround. When censors banned the phrase “#MeToo”, a substitution meme emerged: rice (“mi”) and bunny (“you”). More information on the bear below.

If the People’s Republic of China evokes a rising power, a strategic competitor, a powerful autocracy, you probably think of its government. The party-state is nothing if not consistent in its efforts to convince the world, through the warmongering of its leaders’ public statements, that China’s political sphere is completely devoid of humor.

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

Consider the recent protests that have rocked cities across China. In Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, a building fire last week claimed the lives of 10 people, who are believed to have died due to a strict Covid-19 lockdown that made their escape difficult. The tragedy has sparked extraordinary outbursts of public defiance against “zero-Covid” policies that have left millions feeling trapped and helpless, and those particular victims with no escape from the flames.

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

People who take to the streets against the Chinese government risk being detained, arrested – and worse. This is especially true for those who dare, as some have done, to shout slogans not just for lifting the lockdown, but for broader political change. Yet the mourning and seriousness were softened by playfulness: parody of official rhetoric, mockery of censors and disregard for paternalistic leadership.

When the official media attempted to discredit the protests as being the work of “outsiders” (a typical ploy, also enjoyed by other oppressive governments, such as Russia and Iran), students in Beijing responded with sarcasm. “Who could these strangers be?” they answered. Perhaps the ideological icons that the Chinese Communist Party has imposed on the population for generations, Marx and Engels?

Last week, students at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University were seen holding sheets of paper printed with a physics equation from the 1920s. If you’re that smart, he seemed to say, decode that! Chinese netizens were up to the task, tracing the hint back to Alexander Friedmann, who not only has a surname suggesting liberation, but who speculated that the universe was – at least for people not confined, presumably – expanding.

Yet the defining symbol of the protests has been the holding of a blank sheet of paper, a fill-in-your-own punch line for the nonsensical joke that is Chinese state repression. Chinese social media has taken to calling the protests the ‘blank page movement’ or the ‘white paper revolution’ (or sometimes using the term ‘A4’ for objects held back due to the size leaves).

Each blank sheet of paper invokes an unjust absence in the same way that Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony symbolized the tragedy of the laureate’s incarceration in China as a political criminal. Liu eventually died in custody.

A clean sheet, too, says a lot. He pokes fun at a censorship regime in which virtually any word can become taboo. It renders the individual unreadable to a state of mass surveillance, denying him its invasive prerogative. When an individual says nothing, his words cannot be suppressed.

All of the White Pages are also challenging the “tall whites” (“dabai”), the frontline enforcers of Covid-19 policies in full PPE that make them look a bit like Star Wars Stormtroopers.

The use of a blank sheet to draw attention to Chinese government censorship dates back to the days before the Communists came to power in 1949. Even now, newspaper editors sometimes show readers that content has been cut off leaving a blank space on the page, called a " dormer."

Blank sheets were also used in Hong Kong in 2020 to mock a new national security law, which severely curtailed freedoms, signaling the end of China’s promise to respect Hong Kong’s legal autonomy. , known as “one country, two systems”.

For us, the blank sheets also evoke the aesthetic practice of “leaving a blank” or “liu bai”, which Chinese painters have used for over 1,500 years to engage the viewer by deliberately leaving a void in a composition, a space for the imagination.

In 1958, Chairman Mao called the Chinese people “poor and virgin”. Even as China grew wealthier, its leaders hoped that the Chinese people would remain a canvas on which to inscribe their own message.

The white page movement caught these leaders off guard.

Few expected to see so many protests taking place simultaneously in so many different places. Mainland China has seen thousands of protests over the past few decades, but since 1989 they have tended to be confined to specific locations (e.g. protests against polluting factories), to involve a single social group (such as labor strikes) or to oppose actions by foreign powers that the government encourages or at least condones (such as the 1999 protests sparked by NATO bombs hitting the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade).

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

The events in late November were unusual in that they erupted in multiple places at once, involved a mix of people, and targeted a policy championed by China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping.

Which brings us back to Winnie the Pooh.

Xi as Pooh became a meme in 2013 when the leader was photographed halfway next to then-US President Barack Obama and someone noticed the uncanny resemblance to portly Winnie walking alongside Tigger. The late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quickly transformed into Pooh Eeyore’s sad-eyed pal during a meeting with Xi in 2014.

Animals have appeared in Chinese political discussions for more than a century. “Running dogs” has been a favorite tag to accuse haters of being lackeys of greater power. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who died this week, has become the center of Xi’s ‘toad cult’, a meme that both pokes fun at his physical appearance and expresses nostalgia for a former leader which, compared to Xi, was at least funny.

The best precedent for the Winnie-the-Pooh phenomenon, however, involves a president and a monkey. The president was Yuan Shikai, an army strongman who ousted the founding Provisional President of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen, in 1912 to claim the title of head of state for himself. In 1915, Yuan declared himself emperor. Even before that, cartoonists described Yuan as a monkey (yuan), a word that both looks and sounds like Yuan’s surname.

In 2018, Xi pushed through a constitutional change that removed the requirement for a president (one of his many titles) to step down after two five-year terms. Xi’s ambition to be a lifelong ruler has inspired critics to post images of Winnie the Pooh wearing a royal robe and crown. Others simply posted pictures of Yuan. Xi, they hinted, was like that previous ruler, whose brief time as emperor is remembered as a laughable low point in modern Chinese history. Censors quickly worked overtime to clean up the canvas of crowned bears and monkey emperors.

Imperial Winnie summed up a pivotal moment in the Xi saga. Now, a new Pooh meme is doing the same for what could become a new turning point for China. It shows the bear holding a blank piece of paper in his hand, looking at it quizzically, wondering what to do with the object. Pooh’s bewilderment is amusing to an audience who knows the meaning of a blank sheet of paper is all too clear.

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