This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A protester who hung two protest banners–one of which called for the removal of Chinese leader Xi Jinping — on a Beijing overpass on the eve of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 20th National Congress is being hailed as a hero on social media, as authorities blocked two rock songs being used overseas to sing his praises.
The protester, seen in a video being loaded into a police car Thursday, has been named as Peng Lifa, who used the handle Peng Zaizhou on social media, in a reference to an ancient essay describing the people as the water that holds up the boat of government, and might overturn it if they are unhappy with its rule.
While RFA has been unable to confirm the identity of the protester independently, content posted earlier to Peng’s social media accounts was consistent with the tone of his banners, which were displayed from the Sitong flyover on Beijing’s Third Ring Road on Thursday.
“Remove the traitor-dictator Xi Jinping!” read one banner, video and photos of which were quickly posted to social media, only to be deleted. A post linked from the account called for strikes and class boycotts to remove Xi.
“Food, not PCR tests. Freedom, not lockdowns. Reforms, not the Cultural Revolution. Elections not leaders,” read the second, adding: “Dignity, not lies. Citizens, not slaves.”
Peng’s whereabouts remained unclear, and keywords and accounts linked to the protest were rapidly deleted from China’s tightly controlled social media platforms, as the ruling party’s well-oiled censorship machine swung into action.
Searches for “Haidian,” the district where the banners appeared, and “hero” were all blocked by Friday, amid reports that social media users who talked about the incident were getting their accounts shut down.
Government filters were also blocking access to a rock ballad by Hong Kong pop star Eason Chan titled “Warrior of the Darkness,” the theme to animated series Arcane: League of Legends, which includes the lyric “I love that you walk the dark alleys, love that you don’t kneel to anyone, love that you look despair in the face but never cry.”
Traces of a song released a few years ago titled Sitong Bridge by Mr. Graceless were also rapidly removed from China’s tightly controlled internet. The Baidu search engine page for the song carried only the message: “Oops. The page you were visiting does not exist” when accessed on Friday.
Deleted and blocked
WeChat users in mainland China said the platform was abuzz after the protest, but that many comments and posts on the topic were being deleted, and their senders blocked from group chats.
Comments seen by RFA on the Peng Zaizhou accounts read: “You are a hero. I respect you,” and “I hope you get home safe!”
The Peng Zaizhou Twitter account on Thursday commented on a tweet from the U.S.-based China Digital Times, before the banners appeared: “We are all on the same path. We are about to take action. I hope you can retweet this.”
“Tell dictator Xi Jinping that there are still some men left in China who walk the path to freedom,” the comment said.
The Twitter account was still visible on Friday, but content relating to the banner had been taken down.
Prominent 1989 student protest leader Wang Dan said the protester was “the new Tank Man,” in a reference to the lone shopper who faced down a column of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tanks during the military crackdown on weeks of mass protests in Tiananmen Square.
The fact that Xi will be re-elected for another term has made countless people feel desperate, he said in a comment on his Facebook page.
“Only underneath that despair will there be resistance,” Wang wrote. “This isn’t the first time someone has come forward, and it won’t be the last … Xi Jinping’s rebellious actions are sure to spark more political agitation.”
An officer who answered the phone at the Dazhongsi police station, in the vicinity of the Sitong flyover, and an officer who answered the phone at the Haidian district police department both declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Friday, saying they didn’t know about the situation.
Calls to the cell phone of a 2021 scientific journal article author using the name Peng Zaizhou rang unanswered on Friday.
‘I saw it’
A Chinese social media user who gave only the pseudonym Hu said posts and photos linked to the flyover protest were being blocked very fast on WeChat.
“I didn’t know the entire story of what happened … but I couldn’t enquire too closely in the WeChat group, and nobody dared to explain it to me in detail,” Hu told RFA.
“The moment anyone mentions the specifics, the entire group and account get blocked by WeChat. We will find out about it through external channels,” Hu said, in a reference to circumventing the Great Firewall to read uncensored news on overseas sites.
Hu said Peng’s banner had expressed what many in China are thinking, but have no way to express under widespread censorship and intimidation.
Another social media user who gave the pseudonym Tang said people refer to the incident by saying simply: “I saw it.”
Tang said he didn’t think the protest was carried out by a lone activist.
“The person who hung the banner posted a link to a website,” he said. “Everything he did was within the scope of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China.”
“He asked for the recall of the CCP general secretary [Xi Jinping] and also put forward his own views on how to elect [a new leader,” Tang said.
“This is all legal and in accordance with the party constitution, so I think he is someone within the [party or government],” he said.
The protest sparked an instant tightening of security from authorities in Beijing, with dozens of police officers going door-to-door in nearby buildings to check IDs.
The Beijing city government dispatched militia personnel to direct traffic and guard all overpasses and pedestrian bridges round the clock to prevent any similar incidents.
District governments across the city posted recruitment ads seeking “bridge-watchers” — fully vaccinated males aged 18-55, taller than 1.68 meters — to guard potential protest sites round the clock for 320 yuan a day over 15 days, more than the duration of the party congress.
Political commentator Si Ling said government censors are now able to filter people’s messages in real time.
“We know that the Chinese government has developed a powerful keyword filtering system, and that sensitive words [like Sitong bridge or 20th National Congress] are deleted in seconds,” Si told RFA.
“At least some people are now a bit more awake than they were before.”
In Hong Kong, where no Great Firewall yet limits what internet users can do or see online, the city’s mainstream media didn’t report on the protest.
A full report from pro-democracy site HK01.com was taken down a few hours after being posted.
“This is similar to mainland China when it comes to news about [the Tiananmen massacre of] June 4 ,” independent journalist Lam Yin-bong told RFA.
“Nobody talks about it, nobody mentions it, and nobody writes about it,” he said. “They just act like it never happened, and gradually, it starts to feel like it never happened.”