A Rare Face of China in 2022, Changes in the Country as a Result of the “White Paper Revolution”

A narrative from Chinese-born Kapo, 30, who reflects on her personal experiences and stories from friends and family in China about the past developments in the country.

“One day my mom sent me a message and said, “Can you help us find some food? We have nothing to eat.” on that day I realized how bad the situation was.”

This is how Kapo Chen, who was born in China, describes the effects of the zero-COVID policy on ordinary people’s lives. The last few months of 2022 brought the world an unusual sight: a rare face and news from China that had been unseen for decades. After zero-COVID policy restrictions, this country became the heart of a movement known as the white paper revolution. “Many people started to think, what actually matters to the government? Are we, the people, important to them compared to the policy?” In response to the movement that gained public attention in November, China relaxed its stance and opened its COVID policy.

The Chinese government announced that PCR tests would no longer be required, those with mild or no symptoms would be permitted to remain in home isolation rather than being incarcerated in government field hospitals, and travel restrictions would be relaxed. Despite the fact that the number of people infected with coronavirus is on the rise, an estimated 250 million cases of CoV-19 were reported in China in December, according to Bloomberg.

IMAGO / ZUMA Wire | Protesters hold placards during a vigil commemorating victims of China s zero-COVID policy. November 30, 2022, Seoul, South Korea.

A look back at the beginning of the story

In the fall of 2019, China admitted its first patient with the Coronavirus, and that is when the story began. The first nationwide lockdown at the beginning of a pandemic came shortly after. Three years later, the world decided to ease off on COVID and started to welcome a normal life again, but the tale went in a different direction in China.

In March 2022, China locked down entire cities and sent COVID-19 patients to central quarantine facilities. It was mandatory for everyone to stay inside unless they had an absolute necessity to leave, such as for medical reasons.

IMAGO / Xinhua | Workers converting the National Exhibition and Convention Center (NECC) into a makeshift hospital with a planned capacity of 40,000 beds. April 7, 2022, Shanghai, China.

Kapo Chen, 30, was born and raised in China. She lives in Europe now but is still worried about her hometown:
I remember asking my Chinese friends, “Are you fine?” at the start of the zero-COVID policy, when people were required to undertake daily mandatory PCR tests, reviewed by the government, and taken to a camp if positive. It’s all fine, they said; we only need to put in some effort, and things will improve. They considered that to be the norm, in fact.”  She adds: “They believed the government wanted that, since it is considering improving people’s lives, therefore they must act accordingly, and somehow this collective thinking internalised as a norm. Their life was eventually devastated by this. After all, only when the most apparent thing in your life changes then it would be brought to your attention. Then their thoughts began to shift.”

IMAGO / Xinhua | A staff member adjusts a robot at the construction site of a temporary hospital at the National Exhibition and Convention Center. Shanghai, April 8, 2022.

IMAGO / Xinhua | A worker sprays disinfectants on the newly-arrived living materials in the evening. Shanghai, April 12, 2022.

Lack of food and life’s necessities by the government  

Ten years ago, Kapo left Shanghai, where she was born. Kapo says despite the passage of time, she still keeps in touch with many of her friends and relatives in the town where she grew up. 
“My mother and grandmother live together in Shanghai. They never ask me for anything except for real emergency cases. I heard my friends start to complain that food supplies were not enough on a daily basis.”
One day Kapo received a message from her mom which made her realize the situation is not that easy: “Can you help us find some food?” My mom told me secretly because my grandmother would be angry if she knew my mom had asked for food. On that day I realized how bad the situation was.”

IMAGO / Xinhua | transporting vegetables by volunteers. Shanghai, April 13, 2022.

But how did people get food if they weren’t allowed to get out? Kapo says there was almost a daily competition in the early morning at 6 o’clock for ordering food online on the governmental platforms. “Because the food wasn’t enough, all old people and those not good with smartphones won’t be able to get food and were left far behind. Even though I tried to do it, I could not because I was not used to the ´Chinese speed´, it turned out to be always late and the day’s food supply had run out. If I was not able to do it, how can my grandma who is 80 years old?”

IMAGO / Xinhua | Wei Gang, 78, a volunteer working on the frontline of Shanghai’s fight against the COVID-19.

According to what we have seen in some videos from China, certain officers dressed in uniforms for corona protection are locking people inside their homes. Kapo says, in some areas, a person who is positive will be confined until he or she becomes negative again. Following a tragic fire related to this rule in Xinjiang province in November, widespread protests were further sparked. The locked doors, according to opponents, prevented the victims from leaving the premises, and ten people were killed. 
Kapo says neighbours and volunteers are handling food delivery during this critical period. A situation that she calls “surreal”.

IMAGO/Kyodo News
IMAGO / Kyodo News | Scene in Beijing Epidemic control workers in protective suits walk in a residential area in Beijing. December 9, 2022.

Kapo’s expression goes from calm to anger in less than a second when the topic of the government’s zero-COVID policy is brought up: “Nothing is more important to the government than their face. Some people are dying as a result of the strict limitations; for instance, cancer patients who require chemotherapy are denied access to medical care, or other patients since all the resources are being used for the zero-COVID policy.” As Kapo claims there is no ambulance response in emergency situations, deaths are not due to COVID.

IMAGO / ZUMA Wire | Disinfectant specialists are spraying antiseptic liquid in the reception of the LegCo Complex Building. January 6, 2022, Hong Kong, China.

To whom does the term “white paper revolution” refer

“There are some brave people in China who posted white flags on bridges saying no dictatorship, no mandatory PCR tests; We need food and freedom. So, it started from inside China. For the first time in my life, I see something changed in our country because of a movement.”

IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Ben Marans | A protester hands out blank pieces of paper during a demonstration. November 28, 2022, Hong Kong, China.

Kapo has observed that people outside of China have been more active since the protests started, but the story began from the inside. She believes the new generation had an important impact on the recent changes in China. “It is shocking for my generation who did not experience this cultural revolution and grew up in a nation experiencing economic growth. The zero-COVID policy caused many people to question what was happening for the first time. What actually matters to them? Are people important to them? How are your people supposed to survive without food or medical care at home?”
She says: “Most people in the world are aware of our restricted freedom of expression in China, but people understood that it was important to speak up and tell the world what was going on.”

IMAGO / ITAR-TASS | People take part in a protest against COVID-19 restrictions. China, Beijing, November 27, 2022.

IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Alex Chan Tsz Yuk | A protester is seen sketching the scene of the Zero-covid-19 protest. November 29, 2022, Hong Kong, China.

The CCP’s annual congress fuels people’s anger

Although the news began covering the protests at the end of November, as the protesters allege, the movement started months before and the communist party fueled public anger in October. “Because the government believed its legitimacy was at risk, changes began to be made.”

According to China’s constitution, each president is eligible to serve for two terms of five years each. However, Xi is currently in power for a third five-year term. As Kapo says, there are also efforts to modify the constitution to permanently stage in authority, which she calls “another dictatorship”. She explains people’s indignation was initially sparked by the zero-COVID policy, but it was also fueled by changes in our political system and the Communist Party’s (CCP) annual congress.

IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Kim Jae-Hwan | A protester holds a placard denying Chinese president; Xi Jinping during a vigil commemorating victims of China’s Zero policy. November 30, 2022, Seoul, South Korea.

But this wasn’t all. What has happened in the congress was a red line cross for many Chinese: “I was moving along the sidewalk when a video brought me to the knees. I saw someone attempt to pull our former president out of his chair in the communist party. He was old and weak to stand up for himself. He wanted to say something to Xi, but Xi didn’t even turn to look at him. This older man was our former president and Xi didn’t even spare him a look. There is no humanity or respect. That was the borderline for me and most of the people, which Xi crossed.”

IMAGO / ITAR-TASS | Former Chinese leader Hu Jintao (R standing) is led out of the closing ceremony of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People. Front seated: Xi Jinping, CPC general secretary and president of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing, October 22, 2022.

Reputable former president Jiang Zemin casts a long shadow over the current leaders

Kapo grew up in the Jiang Zemin era. He passed away on November 30. Kapo has some good memories of those times of Zemin’s leadership: “I grew up during Zemin’s time in power. Our economy was not doing well before I was born. Zemin began to transform our economy and policies in the 1990s, and the results are clear. Based on GDP growth, China’s economy grew to one of the world’s largest.”
The popularity of Jiang Zemin and his three famous representative aspects of the Communist Party among Chinese citizens is still fresh in their minds. The three representatives are: 1- the development trend of China’s advanced productive forces. 2- the orientation of China’s advanced culture and 3- the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people. 
“Zemin made a significant contribution with these three representatives, and in my opinion this is how the Chinese Communist Party should define itself today,” Kapo says.
The comparison of his era to the current one appears to present some difficulties for the government.

IMAGO / UPI Photo | China’s President Xi Jinping (L) and former President Jiang Zemin attend the closing ceremony of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 24, 2017.

However, Zemin’s popularity stemmed from more than his politics. When Kapo starts talking about Zemin, she becomes emotional, and her eyes start tearing up. “Zemin had a wide range of musical abilities, including playing many instruments and conducting an orchestra. He had English language proficiency, something our president currently lacks. He made no demands for nudity or even violated censorship of western films or artistic works. Something that is no longer seen in China.”
She believes that these censorship and controls keep individuals from gaining awareness of the world around them and hence from taking action to make improvements in it. “You don’t even know it’s forbidden to think in another way, and that’s the most critical component. Because the state is making your limitations as it’s the standard.”

IMAGO / SNA | Jiang Zemin, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during a trip to the Soviet Union in Moscow. Russia, May 1991.

250 million Chinese people infected by COVID making the zero-COVID policy a failure

According to internal estimates from the country’s leading health officials, about 250 million Chinese citizens — or 18% of the population — may have been infected by Covid-19 in December, as Bloomberg and CNN reported.
In 2022, China experienced a year of surprises, or as Kapo described it was a “surreal” situation. For the Chinese populace, which has begun to once again feel the power of public protests to sway their strong government leaders, it appears that recent developments have served as a tipping point or one step too far.
However, while it’s unclear what will happen at the start of 2023, whether “the white paper revolution” will continue or not, one thing is certain now: The significant rise in COVID-19 infections indicates that China’s zero-COVID policy has so far failed.

IMAGO/Kyodo News
IMAGO / Kyodo News | Line up for PCR tests. November. 10, 2022, Beijing, China.

Article, image selection and interview by Fatemeh Roshan. Interview with Kapo Chen.