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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Paper Cannot Wrap the Fire - Rebellions Revisited

For those who are frustrated and cannot speak (up).

In last week’s Sunday Summary, we reported on a number of protests in Europe and Qatar. This week we report on the momentous widespread protests which mushroomed across China last weekend, demonstrating against strict covid restrictions. We will also ask how it feels to be a Chinese overseas student, watching the demonstrations from Maastricht.

No to PCR. Yes to freedom!

The world has witnessed numerous protests unfolding across China. The thousands of people who defied Chinese Authorities last weekend were driven by their objection to the government’s zero-Covid policy. The demonstrations began as an expression of anger against unreasonable and dangerous Covid restrictions and the intrusion and economic harm they cause to people’s lives, however some protest crowds have been heard to shout out ‘Down with Xi Jinping’. This expression of opposition to the Chinese premier would have been unimaginable to most Chinese people only a short time ago.

On November 24th, a fire in a locked-down high-rise building killed 10 residents in Urumqi, Xinjian province. There had been growing frustration for some time about China’s draconian zero-Covid measures, however this discontent was catalysed into outspoken opposition by the belief that these residents were unable to escape because covid restrictions sealed them in their apartments.

CNN has verified that protests took place in 17 cities and the small amount of footage available shows mostly young men and women. There is no known organising body, and no obvious leaders on each demonstration.

The joy one can find in the resourcefulness and creativity of protesters is like a beautiful lily growing out of a muddy pond. Protesters hold up blank, white sheets of A4 paper as an expression of defiance which draws attention to and circumvents government censorship. The protesters also held up pages with an esoteric equation by physicist Alexander Friedmann printed on them, Friedmann being a homonym of ‘freed man’. Protesters also sang the Chinese national anthem, exploiting its revolutionary lyrics under the assumption that not even the government would be absurd enough to ban their own national anthem (again).

The Friedmann equation (Artwork by @channeldraw)

These protests are on a scale not seen since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese authorities caused the protests to be dispersed and large numbers of police were deployed in major cities. The protests have received no coverage in Chinese media and the government has sent university students home. Police have been randomly checking phones for foreign apps and have deleted photos. Some arrests have already been made and it is possible that the other demonstrators will be traced and persecuted. These protests are a contest between public feeling and fear.

Vigils and demonstrations expressing solidarity with the Chinese protests took place across the world. These acts of solidarity were attended by members of the Chinese diaspora. Being outside of China does not mean one is safe to demonstrate. Many people are worried they will be surveilled at demonstrations, which could have consequences for their families in China. There are also more acute risks, in October a Hong Kong citizen named Bob Chan was protesting outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester (UK) when he was set upon by thuggish diplomats who beat and tried to drag him into the building. Chinese citizens worry their government won't let national borders limit their reach, one source referred to China’s ‘illegal’ government offices in the Netherlands as ‘police stations’.

Chinese students in Maastricht have found themselves in a quandary. The information asymmetry which exists between them and their contacts back home makes communication very difficult. Living in Europe they have access to news which is censored in China, however concerns that their private messages are surveilled mean they self-censor their correspondence and so cannot know what their loved ones are experiencing.

Chinese students are anxious about showing overt support for the demonstrations. Students are concerned that supporters of the Chinese government will report back dissenting opinions they express. Pro-government commentators in China have claimed the demonstrations were orchestrated by ‘foreign forces’, and Chinese students in Maastricht fear that they will be seen as guilty by association. As one UM student expressed it: “It really feels like the danger is near and oppressing, what is unbearable is that this ‘unfree’ feeling continuously follows us, tormenting us even in a different space and time”.

Some of UM’s Chinese students planned to have a vigil today for the victims of the high-rise fire, but this demonstration was cancelled because of concerns that the small number of participants could be easily identified. Cancelling this event was very painful to its organisers. Students we have spoken to have said they feel guilty for not saying what is in their hearts and are frustrated that they have to suppress the urge to do so.

There are signs that some Covid restrictions are being lifted, but still no prospect of an end to the zero-Covid policy. The protests may have accelerated this lifting, but in China's mass surveillance state, the demonstrators have gambled their futures. It is hard to know what conclusions one can draw. For every one protester, a hundred-thousand odd people choose not to take to the streets. Nonetheless, protests like these haven’t been seen in China for decades and they may mark the beginning of growing civil discontent.

One cannot wrap a fire in paper – we all want to believe that the flame of liberty cannot be suffocated by paper-mâché despots. But the truth is that more often than not rebellions are suppressed and thrown down the memory hole. Many of us entertain the teleological belief that revolutions are milestones on the road of history. However, in truth, history doesn’t follow a linear progressive path to utopia. History is messy and chaotic. Only time will tell if these protesters were a manifestation of the irrepressible spirit of freedom or the blank, white sheet of A4 paper incapable of suppressing the flame of tyranny.

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