Why Are Students Holding Up This Physics Equation During China’s COVID Protests?

In protests unseen for decades, citizens in China are venting their anger at the country’s zero-COVID policy in subtle and unusual ways.
China COVID protests
Student protesters at Tsinghua University hold up parts of the Friedmann equations, calling for freedom as they rallied against China's zero-COVID policy.

Conscious of the limits of free speech in China, protesters against the country’s COVID curbs are using unconventional symbols to express their discontent—including exclamation marks, blank sheets of white paper, and a physics formula.

Hundreds of students gathered at one of China’s top universities in Beijing on Sunday, chanting against the country’s zero-COVID policy as a rare wave of protests erupted across Chinese cities over the weekend. But among the student protesters at Tsinghua University, the alma mater of Chinese President Xi Jinping, one group stood out for raising pieces of paper featuring a cryptic formula.

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The unconventional signs immediately grabbed the attention of social media users, who soon identified the formula as one of the Friedmann equations—named after physicist Alexander Friedmann. Some decoded the choice of protest material as a play on the physicist’s last name, which sounds like “free man.”

Others took the equation, which is related to the calculation of the universe’s expansion, as a call for “opening up” after close to three years of intermittent lockdowns. 

Amid China’s suppression of activism and speech critical of the authorities, blank sheets of paper have also become prominent symbols of the COVID protests, which have erupted at more than 50 university campuses and public spaces across at least a dozen cities since Friday. In 2020, activists in Hong Kong similarly used blank paper in demonstrations after a new national security law banned the use of popular protest slogans.

In a social media video of a protest at Beijing’s Liangmaqiao district over the weekend, one explained the choice of protest tool. “Are we saying anything? No,” she said as she flipped the blank paper in her hand. “All the complaints and mourning are in our hearts.”

Lim Tai Wei, an adjunct senior research fellow at East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, told VICE World News that activists may be trying to evade Chinese censors.

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“There’s no official reason provided so far [for the blank papers],” he said. “But given that the algorithms, as well as AI, tend to focus on textual information, it may be possible that the absence of textual information or even pictographic symbols would probably make it more inconspicuous.”

“This time it’s different. We see protests across the country… and all these protests are targeted at the same issue, the zero-COVID policy.”

Though attendance at the protests remains contained to the low thousands, the wave of demonstrations are the most explicit and widespread challenge to the Communist Party since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Some have even called for the resignation of President Xi Jinping—the architect of China’s zero-COVID approach.

“It’s very rare that a massive protest has very clear political expressions and appeals,” Shan Wei, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, told VICE World News.

“This time it’s different. We see protests across the country… and all these protests are targeted at the same issue, the zero-COVID policy.” 

But while many stick to holding blank paper, some are more tongue-in-cheek with their choice of protest symbols. At least one student in Tsinghua was seen holding up a sign printed with an exclamation mark, a symbol often shown on WeChat indicating restricted content—a jab at the country’s strict censorship apparatus, which has suppressed coverage of the protests.  

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In Shanghai, where residents endured at least two months in total lockdown earlier this year, tensions rose as thousands gathered to protest the country’s zero-COVID policy, which has seen China continue to enforce public health measures as the rest of the world moves towards normality. 

A photo circulating on social media on Sunday afternoon showed a woman walking three alpacas down Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, where high-profile demonstrations have taken place. Bemused social media users quickly interpreted the alpacas as a cleverly veiled protest, with some even calling it “performance art.” The Chinese term for alpacas, which sounds like the phrase “fuck your mother,” is often used as a euphemism for the vulgar slang.

Wulumuqi Road is named after the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang province, where at least 10 people died in a residential fire on Nov. 24. Many blamed pandemic restrictions for delaying rescue attempts and preventing residents from escaping—a claim denied by local authorities—with the tragedy sparking widespread public anger.

The road itself has now become a symbol of dissent, with Chinese protesters living abroad photographed at demonstrations bearing homemade Wulumuqi Road signs. 

Shan of the National University of Singapore said that, in the absence of explicit critique, these indirect messages convey potent symbolic dissent.

“It’s creative and it’s a powerful symbol to show how the government forces people to shut up,” he said. “It means ‘Yes I want to say something, but I cannot.’”

Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.