China’s online censorship went into overdrive after a rare protest took place on a busy overpass in Beijing which openly criticized Xi Jinping’s uncompromising zero-Covid policy and authoritarian rule, stoking pent-up tensions among the Chinese public.
Photos circulated on Twitter on Thursday showing two protest banners strewn over the Sitong Bridge in Beijing’s Haidian district in broad daylight, with plumes of smoke billowing from the bridge.
“Say no to Covid test, yes to food. No to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to lies, yes to dignity. No to cultural revolution, yes to reform. No to great leader, yes to vote. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen,” read one banner.
“Go on strike, remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping,” reads the other.
When CNN arrived at Sitong Bridge around 3:30 p.m. Thursday, no protesters or banners could be seen – as if nothing ever happened.
Some context: Public protest against the top leadership is extremely rare in China with dissenters facing imprisonment or worse.
Thursday’s show of discontent was even more striking given the run-up to important political meetings, when authorities turn Beijing into a fortress to maintain security and stability.
Censorship: Users on Chinese social spoke out to express their support and awe of the brazen defiance. Some shared the Chinese pop hit “Lonely Warrior” in a veiled reference to the protester, who some called a “hero,” while others swore never to forget, posting under the hashtag: “I saw it.”
Many posts were taken down and accounts were suspended indefinitely after commenting on – or alluding to – the protest on Chinese social media such as Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, and WeChat, the super app.
Key words were immediately restricted from search results on the apps, such as “Sitong Bridge” and ”Haidian” – the site of the protest. Terms like “Beijing,” “warrior,” “brave man,” and even “courage” were also restricted.
Lockdown, test, repeat: China’s zero-Covid strategy means that even one infection can trigger a city-wide lockdown, ordering people to stay at home or be transported to a quarantine center for isolation.
The Chinese government’s draconian zero-Covid policy has fueled growing public frustration, as unpredictable cycles of lockdowns and mass testing upended daily life and wreak havoc on the economy.
What to watch for: Hopes that China might ease pandemic restrictions after the Party Congress have all but been crushed as the Communist Party maintained its hardline approach.
In the week leading up to the important meeting, state-run mouthpiece People’s Daily published three commentaries reiterating that China will not let its guard down.