The ritual of the “collective crawl” and the “A4 revolution”: how Chinese students have become the leaders of the protests against Xi Jinping

FILE PHOTO. A person holds white sheets of paper in protest against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions following a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, as the COVID-19 outbreaks continue, in Beijing, China. November 28, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter (THOMAS PETER/)

Protests have erupted across China, initially in response to the death of ten people in a fire at an apartment block in xinjiangin the northwest of the country. The demonstrations represent the largest expression of public discontent since the pro-democratic movement in the Plaza de Tiananmen of 1989which was savagely crushed.

The deaths have been blamed on China’s strict “zero-COVID” policy. The deceased were reportedly prevented from leaving the burning building and their deaths have unleashed a wave of grief and anger.

Many of the demonstrations have been carried out by students. According to international media reports, until November 27 students from at least 79 universities in 15 Chinese provinces had organized public protests of varying magnitude.

Students have a number of complaints, most notably the zero COVID policy. But overall, many are protesting against the regime’s crackdown on free speech and political control. On one campus – Tsingshua University, in Beijing – a video captured hundreds of students gathered to express their grievances.

A young woman made a speech saying: If we dare not speak because we are afraid of being arrested, I think our people will be disappointed in us. As a student at Tsinghua University, I will regret it for the rest of my life.

In the background, a large number of students chanted the motto: “Democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression”.

The protests have been dubbed the “A4 revolution” or “blank paper revolution”after students expressed their anger and discontent by holding up blank A4 sheets of paper, symbolizing both the silencing of the protest and the defiance and rejection of censorship and state control.

The student problem

Since the student-led pro-democracy movement in 1989 was crushed in the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, campus protests have been rare in China. This has aroused criticism from the expert in China Elizabeth Perry of Harvard University. that she has accused the Chinese academy of what she calls its “polite acquiescence.”

In a 2020 paper, How Academia Sustains Authoritarianism in China, Perry criticizes students and academics alike for “acquiring in political conformity in exchange for the many benefits the state confers on them.” In this way, Perry argues that the academic world has reinforced the authoritarian regime in China.

But of late – and even before the Xinjiang fire – discontent has been perceptible on China’s university campuses. Growing anger over prolonged non-COVID lockdowns has been added to an undercurrent of discontent over deteriorating economic conditions, which has led to rising unemployment and waning youth confidence in Xi’s nationalist “Chinese dream”. Jinping.

China has applied lockdowns in different parts of the country almost continuously for three years. The chaotic and harsh control measures across the country have caused enormous disruption to daily life, not only loss of freedom of movement, but also food shortages and various forms of psychological damage.

As on many Western campuses, but on a much larger scale, student lives have been severely disrupted and there is widespread disillusionment. One of the tactics of the protesters that has drawn the attention of the international media is the strange ritual that has been called “collective crawl”.

Images of students forming a circle and crawling on their hands and knees have flooded social media.. The ritual is designed to express frustration at the boredom of the endless conditions of confinement.and is said to represent the attempt to use “nonsense to resist nonsense.”

Student frustration over the bleak economic outlook and associated bleak job prospects is significant. The Chinese government’s legitimacy centers on its economic performance and the 40 years of rapid economic growth that the communist party has provided.

COVID has changed the course of China’s economic trajectory and, not surprisingly, the labor market has suffered. In July 2022, the youth unemployment rate hit a record 19.9%. And, with 11.58 million graduating students on the job market next year, the prospects for these students do not look bright.

The fact that many accuse the government of censoring World Cup coverage in Qatar because the crowds are not wearing masks is a measure of how deep this disenchantment runs among young people.

Xi’s problem

The lockdowns and gloomy economic outlook are undermining young people’s confidence in Xi’s much-vaunted nationalist vision. We are now seeing even some of the administration’s once staunch supporters openly question and criticize zero-COVID policies on the Chinese social media platform Weibo And some of the most daring young protesters in China are voicing the unprecedented demand that “Xi Jinping resigns”.

China’s unachievable “zero-COVID” policy is hanging around Xi’s neck. The Chinese leader has achieved a cult of personality and control not seen since the days of Mao Zedong and was recently awarded an unprecedented third term as leader at the 20th party congress in October, essentially making him “ruler for life” But what seems like a political miscalculation regarding the “zero COVID” policy, which has no end in sight as the number of infections continues to rise to record levels, has led to its toughest test yet. .

Students have been sent home from their universities. And security services are working overtime to suppress dissent on the streets and in cyberspace. But Xi’s reputation is now tarnished, perhaps irrevocably. And it’s hard for these on-campus and off-campus complaints to go quietly.

*Article originally published on The Conversation. Tao Zhang is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Nottingham Trent University

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