Beijing bridge protest inspires copycat protests around the world


Authorities acted quickly when a bold lone protester dressed as a construction worker draped two white banners over a busy Beijing overpass in October, their message calling for the ousting of Chinese leader Xi Jinping just days before he was to won’t get a historic third term.

The protester was immediately arrested and the banners pulled down. Mentions of the incident, including social media posts with the word “bridge” or “Beijing”, disappeared in a few hours. Tweets from a 48-year-old scientist named Peng Lifa and messages he left on ResearchGate – all nearly identical to the banner’s slogans – have been deleted.

But he was already too late. The next day, posters bearing the same slogans appeared at universities in the United States and Canada. Copycat protests have since spread to more than 350 campuses around the world, organized by Chinese students who are tired of seeing their country roll back. And Peng, although never confirmed as the instigator of Sitong, is now known as “Bridge Man” – an echo of the unknown man who faced off against a column of Chinese military tanks leaving the Tiananmen Square in Beijing one day after the 1989 massacre.

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In many cases, students are protesting for the first time. This The nascent political awakening surprised both human rights defenders and the protesters themselves. It builds on earlier protest movements, pro-democracy student rallies in Tian’anmen to the #MeToo pushback in China in the 2010s and the anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong in 2019.

A 23-year-old woman had just arrived in London for a postgraduate program when she heard about the Sitong Bridge Banners. Prompted by Instagram posts showing signs hung by students in the United States, she printed flyers late at night and posted them around her school. It was the first time she had engaged in any form of political expression. The following week, she attended her first demonstration, a rally in front of the Chinese Embassy.

“I had no idea what it would be like and had no experience,” said Wu, who did not give his full name for security reasons. When she arrived at the embassy, ​​a few blocks from Regent’s Park, she found about a dozen mainland Chinese students standing there. No one really knew what to do.

One person suggested they start shouting the Sitong Bridge slogans, “Life, not zero-covid policy; freedom and not confinement; elections not a dictatorship. But others worried that the group was not large enough to attract the attention of passers-by. Finally, they found their voice.

“At first, I felt a little nervous to speak, but the second and third time I was really shouting the slogans,” Wu said. She soon was in tears. “Even though there weren’t many people, when you shout loudly, you can feel the courage between everyone, and it scares you less.”

Initially, counterfeit protests consisted of individual students sneaking out posters with these slogans on their campuses or dropping flyers to strangers in public places – what activists have called a “poster movement”. In recent weeks, these isolated actions have begun to coalesce as supporters meet and organize real events through Telegram groups. Demonstrations took place in London, Toronto, Los Angeles, Sydney and New York; another in Berlin is scheduled for Saturday.

For many participants, it was almost “like a ‘political exit’ experience,” explained moderators of Citizens Daily CN, an Instagram account run by Chinese activists who collect images of Sitong-inspired protests in a myriad of country.

Such mobilization is remarkable given the years-long crackdown against all forms of Chinese activism both inside and outside the country. Under heavy social controls and censorship, even the biggest waves of public outcry in China tend to fizzle out over time. Citizens overseas are also subject to state pressure if they participate in activities seen as critical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

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“It’s very similar to our generation when we went to Tiananmen Square, first very cautiously, then you realize you’re not alone,” said Fengsuo Zhou, a former leader of those -this. a long time ago protests that now lives in the United States.

The demonstrations reveal the frustration and Chinese youth’s pessimism as they watch the nation’s continued covid restrictions, a slowing economy and diminished job prospects. Many are shaken by the increasingly authoritarian government under Xi.

Joe Zhang, a 23-year-old student from Zhengzhou, is in Berlin to help organize this weekend’s event. He left China in 2019 after learning about its crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which brought back what he had seen firsthand while traveling in a neighboring region with another Muslim minority under heavy surveillance.

His point of reference was “1984”, George Orwell’s dystopian novel. “I was terrified,” he said. “I never realized I was living in the book.”

Activists overseas are trying to build on this momentum. Chinese artist Jiang Shengda, based in France, has released a draft handbook for overseas Chinese protests with guidance. He also seeks advice from Hong Kong and Uyghur activists.

Mainland students are taking inspiration from foreign Hong Kong protesters who continue to rally against Beijing’s growing control over the city. On October 23, protesters from China and Hong Kong converged outside the Chinese Embassy in London, with Hong Kong students cheering their counterparts on the continent.

A young mainland woman said she felt safer around Hong Kong protesters. As she approached the gate of the embassy, ​​they told her to protect her identity and not allow anyone to take photos or videos of her. “I learned from them how to negotiate with local governments and the police, how to organize a crowd, how to make protest posters,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to concern for his safety.

Chinese protesters are also relying on approaches honed on the mainland under strict censorship, including what’s called a jieli, or “passing the baton,” a collective protest where netizens overwhelm censors with various iterations of content. prohibited. The strategy was used in China after the death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang in 2020 and later during Shanghai’s widely criticized lockdown.

“Chinese all over the world joined this protest spontaneously, without a leader or organization,” said a Chinese law student in Amsterdam, applauding it as a way to resist. “I saw how the government disguises the truth, ignores people and uses their power to control everything.”

Yet any Chinese student abroad runs the risk of protesting, knowing their compatriots could report them to the Chinese authorities or denounce them online.

Lam, who is from Shanxi province and currently studying in Sydney, explained how posters she had put up in public places at her university were taken down. One she left on a bathroom wall read, “You can’t tear down an idea. Ideas are bulletproof.” Someone scribbled a response in Chinese: “Yes, but I can rip your mouth off.”

“Now that I have met people who share my thoughts, I feel much better. I know I’m not the only one,” Lam said, only revealing her last name for security reasons. “I’m just going to keep posting more posters.”

The Sitong Bridge protest inspired activism even in China. The banner slogans popped up in the toilet cubicles – one of the few public spaces without surveillance cameras.

In October, a man in southern China’s Guangdong province used a labeling machine to make stickers calling on citizens to “drop Xi Jinping”. He stuck them to restroom walls around town.

“I believe a lot of people in China feel the same as me. Most of the people around me are also disgusted, but afraid to act,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for his continued safety.

As with similar movements, protesters face divisions among themselves. In London, Wu isn’t at all optimistic about the change they might ultimately bring. Protesting is more complicated than expected.

Some members of the group disagree with Hong Kong protesters calling for independence. Wu is concerned about the conditions of women in China, but the men dismissed this issue.

“I will do everything I can for now,” she said after attending a protest in London’s Trafalgar Square late last month. Yet she learned an invaluable lesson: “It turns out that courage is something that can be practiced and developed.”

Kuo and Chiang reported from Taipei. Yu reported from Hong Kong.

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