China's Xi Is Battling a Potent Weapon: Mockery

Nicholas Kristof weighs in on the China protests
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 1, 2022 1:04 PM CST
Kristof: Nobody Knows How China Unrest Will End
A protester holds up a blank sheet paper, which has become a potent symbol against China's crackdown on demonstrators.   (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Nicholas Kristof was the New York Times bureau chief in Beijing when the Tiananmen Square protests erupted in 1989, but he's not pretending to know how China's current unrest will end. His advice? "Run from anyone who predicts confidently where China is headed," he writes in a Times essay. "One of the few continuities in China over the last 150 years has been periodic and unexpected discontinuity." Kristof, however, doesn't see the current protests as being in the same league as Tiananmen—they are much smaller, for one thing, and China's government has responded far more quickly than it did in 1989. Given that demonstrators face quick detention, "it’s difficult to see how open resistance can be sustained," he writes. And yet, something does indeed appear to have changed.

Kristof notes that protesters are making effective use of a weapon that authoritarian regimes always struggle to deflect: humor. They are laughing at Xi Jinping and his policies. Some protesters sing the national anthem, ironically, because of the lines, "Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves … The Chinese nation faces its greatest danger." When police arrive, they chant pro-lockdown slogans such as "We want COVID tests!" And they're holding up blank sheets of paper, daring authorities to arrest them for saying, literally, nothing. The latest: People online are posting about banana peels (because its Chinese version, xiang jiao pi, mimics Xi's initials) and shrimp moss (because it sounds like "step down" in Chinese). Which raises the question: "How do you arrest people for posting about banana peels without adding to the ridicule that undermines your rule?" (Read the full essay.)

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