Editor’s Note: Christopher Rea is a professor of Chinese and former Director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of “The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China.” Jeffrey Wasserstrom teaches Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author of “Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink” and editor of “The Oxford History of Modern China.” The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

It transforms the most powerful man in the country into a teddy bear.

It adds to the calendar the imaginary date of May 35 to invoke a people’s uprising that government censors seek to erase from memory.

It mobilizes the public to expose sexual predators with the unlikely affirmation, “Rice Bunny!”

Co-authors Christopher Rea and Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

We refer, of course, to a quality as widespread among China’s people as it is absent among its leaders – comic ingenuity.

May 35 stands in for “June 4,” Chinese shorthand for the 1989 massacre commonly known in English as “Tiananmen,” and a phrase the People’s Republic of China censors have tried to scrub from the internet.

Emojis of a bowl of grain and a small rabbit were another work-around. When censors banned the phrase “#MeToo,” a substitute meme emerged: rice (“mi”) and bunny (“tu”). More about the bear below.

If the People’s Republic of China calls to mind a rising power, a strategic competitor, a powerful autocracy, you are probably thinking of its government. The party-state is nothing if not consistent in its efforts to convince the world, through the bellicosity of its leaders’ public statements, that the Chinese political sphere is utterly humorless.

Police officers block Wulumuqi street, named for Urumqi in Mandarin, in Shanghai on November 27, 2022, in the area where protests against China's zero-Covid policy took place the night before following a deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
'Chilling': Protester tells CNN what the atmosphere is like in China
03:57 - Source: CNN

Nothing could be further from the truth. Chinese humor has a rich and varied history of feeding on political folly and its consequences.

Consider the recent protests roiling cities across China. In the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi last week, a fire in an apartment block claimed the lives of 10 people, believed to have died due to a stringent Covid-19 lockdown that made their escape difficult. The tragedy sparked extraordinary outbursts of public defiance against the “zero-Covid” policies that have left millions of people feeling trapped and helpless, and these particular victims with no escape from the flames.

Protesters in Beijing hold up white pieces of paper during a demonstration against China's zero-Covid measures on November 27.

People who take to the streets against the Chinese government risk detainment, arrest – and worse. This is especially true of those who dare, as some did, to shout out slogans not just for lifting lockdown, but for broader political change. Yet the mourning and the earnestness has been leavened by playfulness: parody of official rhetoric, mockery of censors and insouciance toward a paternalistic leadership.

When official media tried to discredit the protests as the work of “foreigners” (a typical ploy, also beloved by other oppressive governments, like Russia and Iran), students in Beijing responded with sarcasm. “Who might those foreigners be?” they replied. Perhaps the ideological icons the Chinese Communist Party has been imposing on the populace for generations, Marx and Engels?

Last week, students at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University were seen holding up sheets of paper printed with a physics equation dating to the 1920s. If you’re so smart, it seemed to say, decode this! Chinese netizens were up to the task, tracing the allusion to Alexander Friedmann, who not only has a surname suggesting liberation, but who theorized that the universe was – at least for people not on lockdown, presumably – expanding.

Yet the defining symbol of the protests has been the holding up of a blank sheet of paper, a fill-in-your-own-punchline to the absurd joke that is Chinese state repression. Chinese social media has taken to calling the protests the “Blank Page Movement” or the “White Paper Revolution” (or sometimes using the term “A4” for the objects held up due to the size of the sheets).

Each sheet of blank paper invokes an unjust absence in the same way Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony symbolized the tragedy of the laureate’s incarceration in China as a political criminal. Liu eventually died in custody.

A blank sheet, too, speaks volumes. It makes fun of a censorship regime in which virtually any word can become taboo. It makes the individual illegible to a mass surveillance state, denying that state its invasive prerogative. When an individual says nothing, their words cannot be taken away.

All of the white pages also defy the “big whites” (“dabai”), front-line enforcers of Covid-19 policies in full-body PPE that make them look a bit like Star Wars Stormtroopers.

Using a blank sheet to call attention to Chinese government censorship dates back to the era before the Communists took power in 1949. Even now, newspaper editors will sometimes show readers that content has been cut by leaving a blank space on the page, called a “skylight.”

Blank sheets were also used in Hong Kong in 2020 to mock a new national security law, which has severely curtailed freedoms, signaling an end of China’s promise to respect Hong Kong’s legal autonomy, known as “one country, two systems.”

To us, the blank sheets also evoke the aesthetic practice of “leaving a blank,” or “liu bai,” which Chinese painters have used for over 1,500 years to engage the viewer by deliberately leaving a void in a composition, a space for the imagination.

In 1958, Chairman Mao called the Chinese people “poor and blank.” Even as China has become more affluent, its leaders have hoped that Chinese people would remain a canvas onto which they could inscribe their own message.

The Blank Page Movement has caught those leaders unawares.

Few expected to see so many protests happening simultaneously in so many different places. Mainland China has seen thousands of protests in recent decades, but since 1989 they have tended to be limited to specific locales (for example, demonstrations against polluting plants), involve only a single social group (like labor strikes) or be moves against actions by foreign powers that the government encourages or at least tolerates (such as the 1999 demonstrations sparked by NATO bombs hitting the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade).

Students hold up placards, including blank sheets of paper, on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in solidarity with protests held on the mainland over Beijing's Covid-19 restrictions, on November 28.

Late November’s events have been unusual, since they erupted in multiple places at once, involved a mix of people and had as their target a policy championed by China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping.

Which brings us back to Winnie the Pooh.

Xi as Pooh became a meme in 2013 when the leader was photographed mid-stride next to then-US President Barack Obama, and someone noticed the uncanny resemblance to portly Winnie strolling next to Tigger. The late-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was soon transformed into Pooh’s sad-eyed pal Eeyore during a meeting with Xi in 2014.

Animals have appeared in Chinese political discussion for over a century. “Running dogs” has been a favorite label for accusing enemies of being lackeys of some greater power. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who died this week, became the focus of “toad worship” during the Xi era, a meme that simultaneously mocks his physical appearance and expresses nostalgia for a former leader who, compared to Xi, was at least funny.

The best precedent for the Winnie-the-Pooh phenomenon, though, involves a president and an ape. The president was Yuan Shikai, a military strongman who pushed aside the Republic of China’s founding provisional president, Sun Yat-sen, in 1912 to claim the head of state title for himself. In 1915, Yuan declared himself emperor. Even before then, cartoonists were depicting Yuan as an ape (yuan), a word that both looks and sounds the same as Yuan’s last name.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    In 2018, Xi pushed through a constitutional change that did away with the need for a president (one of his many titles) to step down after two five-year terms. Xi’s ambition to be ruler-for-life inspired critics to post images of Winnie the Pooh wearing a royal robe and crown. Others simply posted images of Yuan. Xi, they implied, was like that earlier ruler, whose brief time as an emperor is remembered as a laughable low point in modern Chinese history. Censors were soon working overtime to scrub the web clean of crowned bears and ape emperors.

    Imperial Winnie encapsulated a pivotal moment in the Xi saga. Now, a new Pooh meme is doing the same for what might become a new turning point for China. It shows the bear holding a blank piece of paper in his hand, staring at it quizzically, wondering what to make of the object. Pooh’s perplexity is funny to a public who knows that the meaning of a blank sheet of paper is all too clear.