Blank paper, equations and alpacas: the symbols of China’s zero-Covid protests

Blank sheets of paper, mathematical equations and even alpacas: protesters in China have found creative ways to express anger at the government’s zero-Covid measures, unleashing a wave of dissent against long and severe lockdowns, the deaths of factory workers in Urumqi, and the censorship they’re not allowed to talk about.

The extraordinary protests, which began over the weekend and spread to cities across China including Shanghai and Beijing, have been characterised by acts of civil disobedience, including clashes with police.

The most widely used symbol in the demonstrations has been a blank sheet of paper. It symbolises censorship, and may also, some Twitter users pointed out, be read as a reference to the deaths last week of ten factory workers in Urumqi, Xinjiang; in China white is a colour used at funerals.

Others have dared to put text and symbols on their sheets. One group of protesters printed the Friedman equation, which governs the expansion of the universe – the equations name sounds like the words “Freed man”.

Students from the elite school Tsinghua University protested with Friedmann equation. I have no idea what this equation means, but it does not matter.
It’s the pronunciation: it’s similar to “free的man” (free man)—a spectacular and creative way to express, with intelligence.

— Nathan Law 羅冠聰 (@nathanlawkc) November 27, 2022

Another protester held up an exclamation mark on a red background: the sign used on WeChat when a message can’t be delivered.

One woman walked three alpacas down Urumqi road, which has been interpreted as a reference to one of the earliest protest memes invented to evade and poke fun at internet censors: the grass mud horse, or Cao Ni Ma, an alpaca-like creature whose name in Chinese is a homonym for the insult “go fuck your mother”.

In 2009, when China’s internet censorship grew more strict, users on Baidu posted pictures of alpacas, or “grass mud horses”, as a way to express their frustration.

“The grass mud horse lives!” Jeremy Goldkorn, editor in chief of the China project, posted on Twitter.

Others have been brave enough to chant veiled messages of dissent. In Beijing, protesters demanded “More lockdowns” and “I want to do Covid tests”.

When police ask the protesters not to chant “no more lockdowns”, so they chant this instead:


Folks. Let me remind you this brave effort also encapsulates the highest Chinese wisdom: weaponized passive aggressiveness.

— Tony Lin 林東尼 (@tony_zy) November 27, 2022

In Zhejiang, a young woman walked down the street holding a white piece of paper, her mouth covered with a black tape, and her hands bound loosely with chains.

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