Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement Sunday calling on China to allow commemorations for the one-year anniversary of the “White Paper” protests against the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The rights organization also urged authorities to lift censorship of protest-related social media posts and to release people currently detained for openly condemning the government’s actions.
The Chinese government came under criticism for substantially curtailing the freedom of its citizens during the pandemic. There were protests against the government’s “Zero-COVID” measures, including the Beijing Sitong Bridge protest, in October 2022. In that demonstration, activist Peng Lifa unfurled a banner from the bridge condemning both President Xi Jinping’s COVID policy and the broader context of censorship and human rights violations in the country, garnering substantial attention. Some believe that he is now the victim of an enforced disappearance.
The “White Paper” protests, so-called because protesters held up blank sheets of white paper symbolizing censorship, occurred between November and December 2022. On November 25th, 2022, a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi claimed the lives of ten people who were allegedly prevented from leaving due to the lockdown restrictions. The deaths caused outrage amongst the local population, which then spread across the country. Thousands of people took to the streets, raising white sheets of paper in silent protest. The blank paper symbolized a plurality of viewpoints, from those who simply condemned the COVID policies to those who were advocating for systemic change.
Within a matter of weeks, the government had eased the restrictions in a major policy change. However, the forceful response to the protests led to several arrests and sentences for promoting extremism and sedition. Some of the people arrested are still serving time in prison. Others, like Peng Lifa, allegedly faced enforced disappearance. One year on, the Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson said that China “needs to allow safe public space for people to freely express themselves.” She also called for Chinese authorities to “promptly and unconditionally release all those detained for peacefully criticizing the government’s pandemic response, and those involved in the protests.”