Chinese authorities have strictly censored discussion of a rare demonstration in Beijing on Thursday that saw large banners unfurled over a flyover calling for a boycott and the removal of Xi Jinping, just days before the most important event of his cycle five-year policy in China.
Photos and videos of the Sitong Bridge protest emerged on social media on Thursday afternoon, also showing plumes of smoke billowing from the bridge over a main thoroughfare in the capital’s Haidian district.
“We want food, not PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns. 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,” one banner said, while a second called for school boycotts, strikes and the removal of Xi.
The photos quickly spread on Western social media, but were quickly deleted from platforms behind China’s “Great Firewall”. Posts containing the words “Beijing”, “bridge” or “Haidian” were strictly vetted, and a song that shared the bridge’s name was removed from streaming services, according to The Associated Press.
On Twitter, some users said their accounts had been temporarily disabled on another major Chinese platform, WeChat, after they shared photos of the protest.
However, such a rare demonstration at a time of extreme political sensitivity has drawn attention. As of Friday morning, a “I saw it” Weibo hashtag, where people referred to the incident without referring to it, had been viewed more than 180,000 times before it was also taken down, and some posters had their accounts suspended for violating Weibo rules and regulations.
“I’ve seen it, we’ve all seen it,” one message said.
A reply asking what the hashtag was referring to was answered by a user saying “go look on Twitter sister, if you’re looking for a certain capital you can find anything”.
Other commenters referred to the song Les Misérables Can you hear people singing?, which was briefly censored 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 ignite the grassland.
“#Suddenly seeming less anxious# when I saw someone acting like a moth putting out a fire and sacrificing their life for justice,” one added with the Maoist metaphor.
“We make it worse by trying to cover up,” added another.
Some netizens claimed to have identified the protester, including Chinese dissident and former CCP insider Cai Xia, who posted screenshots to his Twitter claiming to be the protester’s days-old deleted tweets. Others shared photos believed to be of the protester on the bridge, dressed in a construction helmet and shirt.
Fang Zhouzi, a Chinese science writer based 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 that the police did so after arresting him.
“It’s good to know her identity, at least she won’t be evaporated from the world,” he said.
Such an open and publicized protest against Xi would be significant at the best of times, but it happened days before 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 re-appoint Xi for an unprecedented third term and further consolidate his power as China’s authoritarian ruler.
The actual protest appeared to be quickly called off on Thursday afternoon. Shortly after the photos were posted online, no banners were hanging on the roadway. A circular black scar was visible on the shoulder area where the fire is believed to have occurred, 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 that anything unusual had happened in the area.
Additional reports from Chi Hui Lin and agencies