It began with a simple call – come and mourn the dead.
On 27 November, many in China were reeling from the news of a deadly apartment fire. After nearly three years of strict zero-Covid lockdowns, the incident struck a deep, angry chord.
Across Chinese social media and messaging apps, calls to hold candlelight vigils began spreading spontaneously. Thousands responded. Holding up blank sheets of paper, chanting slogans denouncing their leaders, they transformed the vigils into mass demonstrations.
China’s White Paper protests were far from an anomaly in the region. From Sri Lanka to Thailand, Asia has in recent years seen a rash of protests that erupted seemingly out of nowhere: some ebbed as they lost traction, and others were silenced in swift crackdowns. In Myanmar, pockets of resistance continue despite a descent into civil war.
This is no coincidence. Scholars point to a larger, worldwide phenomenon: as mass protests become increasingly common, they’re also more likely to fail.
What’s more, the tool that’s proven crucial in powering these demonstrations – technology – has also hobbled them.
Data gathered by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace since 2017 shows that anti-government protests have been steadily increasing around the world, peaking in 2022.
But last year was also the least successful year for protests, according to Carnegie’s definition, with the lowest percentage of movements that resulted in an immediate change in policy or leadership.
On a much broader scale, but using narrower definitions, academics at Harvard University have been tracking demonstrations and civil resistance since 1900. Counting non-violent “maximalist” campaigns – movements that aim to topple a government, expel a military occupation, or secede – they found a huge spike in the last two decades, but also a concurrent drop in the success rate.
One theory for why this is happening is the rise of social media and messaging apps.
In the past, protests would be organised via community networks built on years of activism, which made them harder to stamp out, experts say. But with unprecedented connectivity, it’s never been easier to spontaneously mobilise people – and also to track them down.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Ho-fung Hung, a Johns Hopkins University professor specialising in political economy and protests.
“Individuals need to find their grievances are not, in fact, individual – that others share their sentiments and there’s a sense of community. So they mobilise. But if you rely too much on social media to organise, authoritarian regimes can also use it to censor and employ techniques of surveillance. The whole thing can be shut down quite easily.”
Governments are relying increasingly on what Professor Erica Chenoweth, one of the academics behind the Harvard study, calls “digital authoritarianism”. And it goes beyond mere surveillance.
During the protests against the Myanmar coup in 2021, authorities shut down the internet entirely to cut off demonstrators from communicating with one another.
In Hong Kong and mainland China, police have attempted to track down protesters by searching phones and encrypted messaging apps. Chinese activists recently said they were approached by users of fake social media accounts posing as reporters, raising fears that this was yet another way to for authorities to gather information on them.
Another tactic is counter-attacking protesters to discredit them and their movement’s legitimacy. This often plays out on social media where disinformation spreads quickly, fuelled by well-coordinated trolling and smear campaigns.
Blaming “foreign forces” for instigating protesters is one example – seen in the Indian authorities’ response to the 2020 farmer demonstrations, and also a common refrain in Chinese state media that is echoed online by nationalist bloggers.
But digital authoritarianism is also just one of the many ways regimes have gotten better at shutting down protest movements, observers say.
Other methods include launching stealth or pre-emptive crackdowns; shoring up internal support to prevent dissatisfied sections of the establishment from joining protesters (a key factor of the success of any movement); and using emergency powers during the Covid pandemic to quash dissent.
With democracy on the backpedal particularly in Asia, authoritarian governments can increasingly get away with this despite international criticism. “Now there is a solidarity of authoritarian and autocratic regimes, they are supporting each other… they crack down hard, and when there are international sanctions imposed on them, they can help each other out,” Prof Hung said.
Seeding a legacy
But what if there was more than one way to think about the success of a protest?
Getting masses of people out on the streets could already be considered an achievement, especially in authoritarian countries where people have been politically disengaged, argues Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science from the University of Toronto.
The White Paper protests, for example, marked a political awakening “in so far as many Chinese citizens dared to say ‘no’ to their government for the first time in their lives. The protests were a turning point from compliance to dissidence, especially among the younger generation,” Dr Fu said, adding that the protests spurred authorities to roll back Covid restrictions.
It’s for these reasons that some Chinese activists view the protests as a success in the end, despite the crackdown.
“None of us could have foreseen that there would be such resistance in today’s China,” a spokesman for activist group CitizensDailyCN said. “The most important thing is that the protests made many ‘deeply closeted’ rebels realise there are actually many people travelling the same path, that they are not alone.”
Pointing to other demonstrations that have flared up in China since the White Paper protests, they said: “If the White Paper protests had not come first, they would not have happened… or would not have attracted the same level of attention.”
The success of a protest, some argue, could be measured not just by whether it achieves its immediate goals but also its long-term impact.
Protests, even so-called failed ones, could lay the groundwork for future demonstrations. They not only seed the idea that people-power can lead to change, but could also provide practice for something bigger and more successful down the line.
“When you have musicians that have played together, the next time they gather they can play together more effectively,” said Jeff Wasserstrom, a history professor with the University of California Irvine.
Most social movements “get small concessions at best” before they fizzle out, he noted. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything left for people to build on… even a failed movement can have a legacy in terms of providing templates and scripts.”
The Milk Tea Alliance, a loose coalition of pro-democracy protesters across Asia, is one such example.
Some of the 2019 Hong Kong protesters’ tactics – hand signals, flashmobs, the use of umbrellas and traffic cones to combat tear gas – were later adopted by demonstrators in Thailand and Sri Lanka. It showed how as authoritarian regimes build alliances, so too can protesters from different countries and social movements cement solidarity.
It was also evident in China, where anti-government and anti-Xi Jinping slogans which emerged from the Bridge Man protest flourished again in the White Paper protests weeks later. Many of these slogans and ideas were “kept alive” by overseas Chinese who, unfettered by censorship, continued to repeat them online and in protests abroad, Prof Wasserstrom noted.
CitizensDailyCN was instrumental in this. Leveraging social media, it has acted as an information hub by disseminating protest details and political memes, becoming a key player in Chinese dissent online.
“The White Paper movement has come to an end, but resistance itself has not,” said their representative, who wished to remain anonymous for their safety.
“The ideal situation is that there continues to be voices of rebellion within the country, leading the resistance, and overseas solidarity maintains the enthusiasm. But at this stage… we can only wait for the next opportunity. I still think there will be a next time.
“The next rebellion may not be called the Bridge Man or White Paper Protest – but it will have a new symbol.”