Becoming an online sensation, the lone warrior displayed banners attacking the president in Beijing. The rare initiative comes amid heightened security measures in the capital. The authorities are trying to censor all information about the demonstration. Popular discontent grows, but those who oppose Xi, run great risks.
Rome (AsiaNews) - On the eve of the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress, a protest in Beijing against Xi Jinping has caused a stir. A number of banners were hung yesterday on a bridge passing over a busy intersection in the capital targeting China's supreme leader and his policy of 'resetting' the Covid-19, as well as calling for elections. It is the first time since the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement that protesters have challenged the regime in such a blatant manner.
The incident happened on the Sitong Viaduct in north-west Beijing, where the city's main universities are located. Passers-by stopped and took pictures with their mobile phones. One banner read: 'We don't want Covid tests, we want food. We don't want isolation, we want freedom. We don't want lies, we want dignity. We don't want cultural revolution, we want reforms. We don't want leaders, we want to vote. We don't want to be slaves, we want to be citizens'. Another read: 'Students and workers strike, remove the dictator and traitor to the nation Xi Jinping'. In one of the videos, the slogans were repeated from a loudspeaker.
An image circulated on the internet shows a man being taken away by police: the protester is believed to have burnt tyres to attract the attention of passers-by. The police removed the banners immediately. A Bloomberg reporter found burn marks at the spot shown on the videos. The Associated Press reported instead that police patrolled the area and stopped pedestrians to check their identity cards.
Chinese authorities did not respond to the requests for comment. Local police denied any incident had taken place.
Web users tried different ways to circumvent the censorship and show their support, calling the protester a 'lone warrior' (孤勇者) and a 'brave man' in their discussions on social media. However, the authorities have filtered out such expressions: when searching for words like 'Sitong bridge', or simply 'bridge' and 'brave', online search engines in China do not give any results.
The protest has become the most debated topic in the Chinese cyber-sphere. Many netizens who shared photos and videos on the messaging app WeChat or on Weibo (a kind of Chinese Twitter) found their accounts blocked.
Many are now concerned about the man's safety. The protester is believed to be Twitter user Peng Zaizhou (彭载舟): some of his old posts are consistent with the slogans on the banners. His real name should be Peng Lifa (彭立发), originally from Tailai county (Heilongjiang).
The 20th Party Congress will open on 16 October. The authorities have tightened security nationwide and imposed logistical and travel restrictions in Beijing. Local dissidents are forced to leave the city, while many activists across the country are under house arrest.
General Secretary Xi is expected to remain in power for a third term, breaking the unwritten rule that the Party leader cannot serve more than two five-year terms. Xi is poised to become China's most powerful politician since Mao Zedong. This is despite the fact that his strict zero-covidance policy has damaged the economy, leading to rising unemployment. Because of the lockdowns, many citizens become dissatisfied and impatient, but people still choose to avoid mentioning Xi's name in a stifling atmosphere.
Openly opposing Xi carries huge risks and some protesters have paid a heavy price. Poet Lu Yang (鲁扬) from Shandong Province, who urged the president to step down, was sentenced to six years in prison. Dong Yaoqiong (董瑶琼), nicknamed 'ink girl' for splashing ink on a poster of the Chinese leader in Shanghai, is interned up in a psychiatric hospital. Her father Dong Jianbiao (董建彪) died in prison in September. Real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang is to serve 18 years in prison after openly criticising Xi.