Thousands of people went onto the streets across China last month to protest their government’s years-long zero-Covid policy. Some of those protests morphed into calls for much more: “We want reform, not Cultural Revolution. We want freedom, not lockdowns. We want votes, not a ruler. We want dignity, not lies. We are citizens, not slaves.”

Many protestors held up blank sheets of paper, a strangely powerful symbol in a country that censors free expression.

central covid protest blank placard
A gathering in Central, Hong Kong, on November 28, 2022, in solidarity with protests against Covid regulations in China. Blank placards are a symbol of the demonstrations. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The protests were extraordinary because the Chinese government’s tight control over information could reasonably be expected to eliminate both the desire to go onto the streets and the ability to share that desire with other people. The protests were especially remarkable given the significant risk of arrest that comes with public opposition to the government.

Chinese authorities initially responded to the protests by blaming them on unspecified “hostile forces” bent on “infiltration and sabotage.” While this response was not surprising – Beijing routinely invokes ethereal “foreign forces” and other unspecified enemies – it suggested the same reflexive tendency to deflect responsibility and reject reality that got China into its zero-Covid muddle. 

It also underestimated the ability of the public to see things as they are. Indeed, a protest video circulating on social media reportedly sarcastically asked whether the hostile foreign forces damned by Chinese officials might refer to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, foreigners whose ideas all Chinese students are required to imbibe.

Most of the participants in last month’s protests appeared to be relatively young. This raises an interesting question: how is it that people who grew up in a system designed to cultivate loyalty to the party-state, and who have always lived behind a Great Firewall of censorship, could have both the yearning and willingness to deviate so far from official teaching?

Opposition to the zero-Covid policy was on the rise for months. Earlier this year, at the height of Shanghai’s zero-Covid lockdown, residents protested by shouting from open windows, demanding to be set free. The government’s high-tech response was to launch a squadron of drones with loudspeakers directing everyone to “Control the soul’s desire for freedom.” 

The party-state’s failure to extinguish Chinese souls’ desire for freedom may be a consequence of the intrinsic nature of that desire: it exists in every normal person. To be sure, it can be suppressed in many people. Such suppression is the raison d’etre of educational systems in authoritarian societies. People who desire freedom can also be controlled through police surveillance and by the threat of imprisonment, or worse. 

Nevertheless, there will always be some people whose souls retain a desire for freedom, and there will always be a few who are willing to risk imprisonment and sometimes even death to express their sentiments. Even in strictly totalitarian North Korea there are thought to be hundreds of thousands of political prisoners who reject the regime’s compulsory worldview. 

cuhk chinese university covid protest demo candle
A gathering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Monday, November 28, 2022, in solidarity with protests against Covid regulations in China. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

When a few people in Hong Kong stood in public holding up blank sheets of paper in solidarity with protestors on the mainland, the territory’s security secretary Chris Tang reportedly expressed concern that there were signs of a fledging “colour revolution,” presumably to bring down the Chinese government.

The gatherings might be precursors of “large-scale riots” that would “plunge the society into chaos,” Tang added. He reportedly did not rule out that holding up a blank sheet of paper violates Hong Kong’s 2020 “national security” law.

Such statements may reveal an official frustration that Hong Kong people are not patriotic enough by government standards. Some of that frustration may be justified, but equating it to revolution, riots and chaos will hardly give foreign investors confidence in the government’s abilities to bring back Hong Kong’s mojo.

The government has been working assiduously in recent years to instil patriotism, particularly among young people – while using every tool in the book, such as anachronistic sedition laws, to prevent their elders from acting “unpatriotically.” One has to ask whether these efforts will have the intended effect given what has been happening in mainland China. 

Classroom school national education china flag
File Photo: GovHK.

If Beijing’s efforts over many decades to instil the Chinese Communist Party’s worldview within people’s minds was unable to prevent nationwide protests, what makes officials in Hong Kong think that they have a more effective formula for winning hearts and minds over to their way of thinking?

Might many of the new practices and laws intended to promote and enforce patriotism, such as having children in military-style uniforms salute the national flag, be signs that the official narrative of patriotism is especially weak? 

If it’s necessary to protect the national flag and anthem with strict laws, and to incarcerate people for the tiniest perceived affronts to those symbols, does that not suggest a lack of voluntary respect for whatever those symbols are perceived to represent? Isn’t there something dysfunctional about having to force people to act patriotically? 

After all, in the United States – the “foreign force” that Hong Kong’s patriots seem to be referring to most of the time – people are free to deride their national anthem or trample on their national flag, even burn it if they wish, as forms of protest. Yet, there’s no lack of American patriotism. If anything, some might say that the free spirit of Americans sometimes contributes to a surplus of patriotism that is far too smug.

US flag
Photo: Jnn1776, via Flickr.

China’s dramatic economic rise over the last several decades has been characterised by an equally dramatic rise in restrictions on people’s freedoms, especially since the advent of Xi Jinping as leader. Hong Kong people know this well. 

However, despite their rhetoric about “hostile forces,” mainland officials were able to distinguish their propaganda about the nationwide protests from the reality of them. Those officials responded by dismantling the most-reviled aspects of their zero-Covid policy. They surely would not have done this if they truly believed that “hostile forces” were behind the protests. 

At least with respect to Covid, the Chinese people’s desire to be free seems to have been accepted as valid by the central government. If Hong Kong officials had responded similarly to the initial extradition-bill protests in 2019, which were also about people’s desire to be free, how different things would be here today. 

Hong Kong’s leaders, who sometimes seem to lack the ability to distinguish everyday reality from their increasingly frequent claims of nefarious forces trying to drag Hong Kong down – seeing blank sheets of paper as grievous threats rather than, well, blank sheets of paper – could learn some additional lessons from their more seasoned counterparts in Beijing.

chinese national anthem march of the volunteers
A music score for the Chinese national anthem. Photo: GovHK.

The upshot is that a government can declare that it is unlawful for citizens to show disrespect for national symbols, or, in the case of Hong Kong, for people to call openly for a return of the freedoms that they enjoyed before 2020. However, a government cannot yet make it unlawful for people to believe that power is being abused or for them to desire democracy and other freedoms. 

Perhaps the well-resourced Innovation and Technology Bureau is working assiduously to develop a mind-reading contraption that will enable the government to police such thoughts. Even a quixotic effort to do so might please Beijing more than further paranoic rhetoric from Hong Kong.

Everyone in Hong Kong is required by law to show reverence for the Chinese national anthem and its stirring words: “Arise! Ye who refuse to be slaves!” The government shouldn’t be surprised if those words nourish “the soul’s desire for freedom” – even if that desire is expressed on a frighteningly blank sheet of paper.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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Paul G. Harris

Paul G. Harris is the Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He is the author/editor of two dozen books on global environmental politics, policy and ethics. Learn more about Paul's work on his website.