BEIJING – The rallying cries from a rare protest in Beijing last week criticising China’s strict Covid-19 approach and the country’s leader Xi Jinping have been taken up by young Chinese across the world, even as the Chinese authorities attempt to wipe out any mention on Chinese social media.
Posters with slogans such as “We want freedom, not lockdowns”, “We want dignity, no more lies”, and “We want to be citizens, not slaves” have been put up by overseas Chinese students on university bulletin boards, lamp posts and in train stations, echoing their discontent with the political leadership back at home.
The protest posters, which have sprung up in London, New York, Amsterdam, Paris and Seoul, were triggered by a lone wolf demonstration on Oct 13 in Haidian district of the Chinese capital that the authorities quickly squelched.
A man, whom netizens identified as Mr Peng Lifa, had draped banners over a side of the busy Sitong bridge, calling for an end to Mr Xi’s rule and China’s strict Covid-19 controls.
He initially escaped detection by donning a hard hat and an orange vest that city workers wear, but was arrested later by police after he put up the banners, according to videos online.
Mr Peng, reportedly a physicist in China, also started a fire and blared a recording of his slogans on the bridge to draw attention.
The Straits Times was not able to independently verify the identity of the man. He had been identified by United States-based Chinese writer and blogger Fang Shimin, who said on Twitter that he had previously conversed with Mr Peng. Mr Fang did not respond to ST’s query.
When ST visited the bridge on Tuesday, a police van and at least five uniformed officers were stationed at a road junction under the highway. Civilian volunteers, identified by their red arm bands, and city workers also patrolled pedestrian bridges nearby.
Online posts containing the words “bridge”, “Beijing” and “Haidian” and photos of the protest had gone viral, but were swiftly removed by China’s censors. Netizens also complained that their social media accounts on Weibo and WeChat were locked after posting the words “I saw it” in Chinese.
Mr Peng’s whereabouts are currently unknown.
He had protested days before China’s biggest political meeting began on Sunday. Mr Xi is almost certain to take on a precedent-breaking third term as general secretary of China’s Communist Party (CPC) after its national congress, when it ends this coming Sunday.
University students outside China told ST that they feared for the safety of Mr Peng, whom they referred to as “Bridge Man”, in a reference to the “Tank Man” who had stood in front of armoured vehicles to protect protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
They said Mr Peng had endangered his life to question Mr Xi and to reflect the deep unhappiness in China about the country’s tight pandemic controls.
China is the last major economy to continue with mandatory Covid-19 testing, flash lockdowns and tight border controls, despite the growing frustration within the country of 1.4 billion people.
Ms Ann Zhang, 25, a postgraduate student in London, spent three hours on Sunday putting up posters bearing Mr Peng’s slogans around her school campus. She said she felt validated after seeing similar posters being put up by others in London.
She said that she did not want Mr Peng’s sacrifice to be in vain, adding: “I can understand that some issues are just out of the government’s capacity to deal with, but it’s just unfair to shut people’s mouths.”
In Amsterdam, postgraduate student Yi Senni, 25, said that she had put up posters near the Dutch capital’s train station. “I want them to be seen by many people,” she said.
She added that she admires Mr Peng for doing what she was too scared to do when she was in China, where she felt oppressed due to the lack of freedom of speech.
An undergraduate in Canada, who gave her name only as Lorraine, drove five hours with a friend on Sunday to protest outside the Chinese consulate in Toronto, where protesters held up a banner similar to the one Mr Peng put up in Beijing.
“I hope I can keep Mr Peng’s spirit alive,” said the 18-year-old, who has about 9,000 followers on Twitter. She posts about gender rights and shows her support for independent journalism – both of which are sensitive topics in China.
She described being bullied in high school in China by her class monitor, who is pro-CPC, and alienated by her classmates who would not do group work with her because of her political views. Her Weibo account had also been locked at various times by China’s censors.
The students declined to provide more information about themselves to protect themselves and their family and friends who are still living in mainland China.
Ms Zhang and her friends chose to put up the posters on Sunday because fewer people were on campus. She had turned off her phone to avoid being tracked, and her friends even suggested wearing gloves so they would not leave fingerprints.
Ms Yi said she remembered feeling insecure when she noticed an Asian man standing near her and smiling at her. “My first thought was, is he going to take a photo of me and report it?” she said.
“I was quite stressed while (putting up the posters). I was afraid of being recognised by pinkies,” she said, referring to staunch supporters of the ruling CPC.
“You can’t really tell who they are... Being a Chinese, I’ve always lived with fear,” she said.