CHINA On the eve of the 20th Communist Party Congress, a stir over a solitary protest against Xi Jinping

The protester became a hero on the web, after displaying banners attacking the president in the middle of the city of Beijing. The unusual initiative comes as security measures are tightened in the capital. The authorities try to censor any information about the demonstration. Popular discontent grows. However, those who oppose Xi take enormous risks.

Rome () – On the eve of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, a protest against Xi Jinping caused a stir. Yesterday several banners appeared hanging on a bridge that passes over a busy intersection in the capital. The captions on the posters targeted China’s supreme leader and his policy of “eradicating” Covid-19, and also called for elections. It is the first time since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement of 1989 that protesters have so blatantly challenged the regime.

The incident occurred at the Sitong Viaduct in northwest Beijing, where the city’s main universities are located. Passers-by stopped and took photos 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 be citizens.” Another banner read: “Striking students and workers, remove the dictator and traitor to the nation Xi Jinping.” In one of the videos, the slogans were repeated from a loudspeaker.

An image of a man being led away by police circulated on the Internet: it is believed that the protester burned tires to attract the attention of passers-by. The police removed the banners immediately. a reporter from Bloomberg found marks of a fire in the place that appears in the videos. For its part, Associated Press reported that the police patrolled the area and stopped pedestrians to check their identity documents.

Chinese authorities did not respond to requests for comment; the local police denied that any incidents had taken place.

Netizens tried to circumvent censorship in different ways to show their support for the protester, who they dubbed “lone warrior” (孤勇者) and “brave man” in their discussions on social media. However, the authorities filtered out such expressions: when searching for words like “Sitong bridge”, or simply “bridge” and “brave”, Chinese search engines do not return any results.

The protest became the most debated topic in the Chinese cyber sphere. Many netizens who shared photos and videos on the messaging app wechat or in Weibo (a kind of Chinese Twitter) ended with their accounts blocked.

The safety of the protester is the main concern of many. He is believed to be Twitter user Peng Zaizhou (彭载舟): some of his old posts match the slogans on the banners. Theoretically his real name is Peng Lifa (彭立发), and he is originally from Tailai County (Heilongjiang).

The 20th Party Congress will open on October 16. Authorities have tightened security across the country and restricted travel and logistics in Beijing. Local dissidents have been forced to leave the city and 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 stay in power for more than two five-year terms. Xi is preparing to become China’s most powerful politician since Mao Zedong. And this, despite the fact that its strict “Zero Covid” policy has hurt the economy, causing an increase in unemployment. Because of the closures, many citizens are unhappy and impatient, but people still choose to avoid mentioning Xi’s name in a suffocating environment.

The reality is that openly opposing Xi carries enormous risks. Some protesters paid a heavy price for this: 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 “the ink girl” for smearing a poster of the Chinese leader in Shanghai, is locked up in a psychiatric hospital; her father, Dong Jianbiao (董建彪), died in prison in September; and real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang will be serving 18 years in prison for openly criticizing Xi.

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