the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Jacqueline Wu ‘24
Since the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, China has been implementing near-universal PCR testing, city lockdowns, and movement restrictions. While there have been requests to relax these restrictions, for most of the pandemic, the majority of Chinese citizens saw them as necessary precautions to reduce widespread infection and fatality until this winter.
On November 24, 2022, a residential building fire in Urumqi, a city in Xinjiang, China, claimed the lives of ten individuals and injured nine more. Despite the government's denial, many on Chinese social media speculated that covid restrictions hampered rescue efforts. The area where the fire occurred had been under lockdown protocol for more than three months. On the night of the fire, lockdown restrictions prevented firetrucks from approaching the building, adding challenges to fire suppression. They also made it difficult for residents to evacuate safely.
The disastrous fire in Xinjiang ignited waves of protests against China’s zero-covid policies. On the evening of November 26, thousands of people in Shanghai, China, gathered at a crossroads on Urumqi (M) Road, named after the city in Xinjiang, and used candles and signs to mourn the dead. They also chanted slogans and demanded the relaxation of covid control measures. Some protestors voiced objection to the new rule in Shanghai that required citizens to scan health codes on their mobile phones before entering public spaces such as malls, offices, and parks. The rebellious spirit seen in Shanghai that evening escalated in the upcoming weeks.
As a demonstration, many people in Shanghai held a singular A4-sized blank white sheet of paper, calling for justice for those who had perished and for an end to covid restrictions. The blank paper revolution evolved into the most recognizable emblem of communication. Different interpretations of the symbol have been made. Some saw it as a satirical representation of the covid staff wearing white gowns, who were supposed to be saviors but instead violently enforced the rule. Others believed the blank papers symbolized how Chinese citizens were voiceless but powerful. For subsequent days, signs of white paper spread across China. Chinese citizens living abroad also protested at the local Chinese embassy seeking justice. The fire in Urumqi provoked dissatisfaction and protests against the covid prevention methods.
Ultimately, the fire in Urumqi ignited the anger of the Chinese people after three years of enduring the zero-covid policy. Their voices in protest have urged the Chinese government authorities to amend the covid policy.