Chinese authorities strictly censored discussion of a rare protest in Beijing on Thursday that saw large banners unfurled on an overpass calling for a boycott and the removal of Xi Jinpingjust days before China’s most important event in its five-year policy cycle.
Photos and videos of the protest on Sitong Bridge emerged on social media Thursday afternoon, also showing plumes of smoke rising from the bridge over a major thoroughfare in the capital’s Haidian District.
“We want food, not PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdown. We want respect, not lies. We want reform, not a cultural revolution. We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves,” said one banner, while a second called for boycotts of schools, strikes and the removal of Xi.
The photos quickly spread across Western social media, but were quickly taken down by platforms behind China’s Internet “Great Firewall”. Posts containing the words “Beijing,” “bridge,” or “Haidian” were strictly vetted, and a song sharing the bridge’s name was removed from streaming services, according to the Associated Press.
On Twitter, some users said their accounts were temporarily disabled on another major Chinese platform, WeChat, after they shared photos of the protest.
However, such a rare protest at a time of extreme political sensitivity has attracted attention. A Weibo hashtag “I saw it,” in which people referred to the incident without referring to it, had been viewed more than 180,000 times on Friday morning before it too was deleted, and some posters they had their accounts suspended for violating Weibo rules and regulations.
“I saw it, we all saw it,” said one post.
To the answer asking what the hashtag meant, one user replied by saying “go look on Twitter, sister, if you are looking for a certain capital you will find everything”.
Other commentators referred to the Les Miserables song Do you listen the people sing?, which was briefly banned in 2019 after becoming a popular protest song in Hong Kong.
Many comments alluded to a revolutionary saying made famous by Mao Zedong: “A small spark can set the grassland on fire.”
“#It suddenly feels less anxious# when I saw someone behaving like a moth putting out a fire and sacrificing his life for righteousness,” one of them added to the Maoist metaphor.
“One makes matters worse by attempting a cover-up,” added another.
Some internet users said they had identified the protester, including Chinese dissident and former CCP member Cai Xia, who posted screenshots to his Twitter purporting to be days-old deleted tweets from the protester. Others shared photos purported to show the protester on the bridge, disguised in a helmet and T-shirt.
Fang Zhouzi, a Chinese science writer living in the United States, said the same slogans displayed on the bridge had been posted days earlier on his ResearchGate account by the man believed to be the protester. Fang said the posts have since been deleted, speculating police did so after arresting him.
“It’s good to know your identity, at least it won’t have evaporated from the world,” she said.
Such an open and publicized protest against Xi in particular would be meaningful at best, but that came within days of the ruling Communist Party Congress. Thousands of political delegates descended on Beijing for a week of closed-door meetings and highly choreographed political talks that are expected to reappoint Xi for a record-breaking third term and further solidify his power as China’s authoritarian leader.
The protest proper appeared to have been quickly put down on Thursday afternoon. Not long after the photos appeared online, there were no banners hanging in the roadway. A circular black scar was visible on the shoulder area where the fire would have been, and there was a heavy police presence, according to reporters at the scene.
Officers entered stores and stopped pedestrians for questioning. Associated Press reporters were questioned three times and asked to produce identification. Police denied anything unusual had happened in the area.
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin and agencies