When a lone protester put up banners criticizing the Chinese government just days before the 20th Communist Party Congress kicked off, he started a quiet but national revolution. Though the original activist’s whereabouts are now unknown, citizens have been discreetly spreading his message, from graffiti in public toilets to stickers on buses, to airdrops containing messages criticizing the Chinese president.
“Xi Jinping is an emperor without borders,” the message read in black lettering on a small white sticker that has appeared on bus handrails, billboards and the saddles of rental bicycles across China.
Our observer, L, put stickers around his city. For security reasons, he did not want to share the name of his city publicly.
I have a pocket label printer, it is cheap to buy on Taobao, less than 100 yuan [Editor’s note: Taobao is the Chinese equivalent of Amazon. 100 yuan is approximately 14 euros]. And the palm of your hand is about the same size.
I generally stay in places with more foot traffic, but people rarely pay attention. There are many shared bicycles on the street. If you want to ride a bike, scan the QR and check the condition of the vehicle: now is the time to notice my banner.
At first I was very nervous and scared. Then I slowly adapted. I usually stick more than 10 a day.
In China, expressing a disagreement with the government can lead to jail time, especially if your comments are about the president, Xi Jinping.
As a result, any kind of public opposition to the government is rare. That made it all the more shocking when on October 13 – just three days before the start of the 20th Communist Party Conference – an activist, later identified as “Peng Lifa”, hung two banners on one of Beijing’s main roads criticizing ” dictator Xi Jinping” and the health situation in the country.
The activist was later arrested. For now, no one knows what happened to him. All photos and comments about the protest have been censored on Chinese social media. But that doesn’t stop people from spreading his message.
>> Read more about The Observers: ‘Remove the dictator Xi Jinping’: Images show rare protest in Beijing
One of them is our observer, who started sticking his protest stickers in the city shortly after Lifa’s protest.
I think the hero of the four-way bridge is too brave, too tragic. The biggest regret is that he didn’t evacuate in time, or just didn’t want to evacuate. I don’t have the guts to do that.
I don’t have a huge strength, but I do have a small strength. I don’t dare to make big banners, but I do make small ones. I have carefully evaluated that such small banners are very difficult to track and very easy to operate.
The initiative has received a lot of attention on Twitter. It was even shared by Fengsuo Zhou, who led the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 as a student activist.
‘It takes a lot of courage and ingenuity to protest in this way’
Our team spoke to Fengsuo Zhou. He said the person behind the sticker initiative shared his idea as part of a Twitter discussion with more than 600 people who wanted to find a way to spread Peng Lifa’s message.
The pocket printer is easy to carry and hide from cameras; printing is fast and direct, making it the best choice for pasting posters in public areas. But I wouldn’t be surprised if China eventually bans pocket printers.
Given the ubiquitous surveillance in China, it takes a lot of courage and ingenuity to protest in this way.
Many are inspired by Peng Lifa, the protester of Sitong Bridge. He sent the message that you can always find a way to do something with careful planning if you are brave enough.
The ‘toilet revolution’
Photos documenting other statements of support for Peng Lifa’s message are circulating online. US media outlet Shame reported that someone on the Shanghai subway was using Airdrop, an iPhone feature that allows someone to wirelessly send images to nearby phones, to send anti-Xi Jinping messages to everyone around them.
Other photos have documented messages of opposition in Chinese public toilets.
On Twitter, people are calling the appearance of all these posts of opposition in public spaces the “toilet revolution”.
— (@fangshimin) October 15, 2022
These images show the toilets in the Beijing film archive. The graffiti and posters call on people to resist the regime and spread the message of the lone protester who hung banners along a main street in Beijing on Oct. 13.
These photos are said to have been taken in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. But they are difficult to geolocate because they are close-up images of interior spaces. However, we noted that the characters that appear in some photos are written in Simplified Chinese, which is only used in continental China.
The Instagram account “Daily burgershas collected a number of these images, many of which were sent directly to them (rather than being posted on social media). Valentina (not her real name) is one of the Chinese students running this account. Most of them, like Valentina, live outside of China.
People sent us the photos and we asked if it was okay to share their location. We have not called for resistance within China. We applaud people who are willing to risk their safety and are happy to help provide them with a platform, but since our conception, we have never encouraged people to engage in risky resistance activities while still living in China.
The first, second and tenth photos were taken in Chinese toilets, according to “Citizen daily”. The graffiti and posters have taken over Peng Lifa’s message. They have criticized the government and its management of Covid and have called for the end of Xi Jinping’s reign.
I think the resentment people feel towards Xi Jinping is quite universal in China. Personally, I have not met anyone in person who has no complaints about him or the zero-Covid policy. So I feel like the banners really express what an average Chinese in China is really thinking right now, things they can’t say in public or even think about because of their fear of possible retaliation from the regime.
Valentina says most of the protest images shared on Citizens Daily are of students living abroad. “Citizens Daily” said protest messages against the Chinese regime have appeared on the campuses of 320 universities around the world. She says these protests are not without risk for Chinese living abroad, because they have relatives in China and can one day return to the country.
After the Sitong Bridge incident, we started receiving photos and posters of Chinese people studying or working abroad to support that anonymous citizen. So we made a few posters to get more entries. Apparently it’s a hit. To date we only receive more and more. And the level of creativity is just amazing. People get really brave and passionate.
‘The struggle still goes on and we are not alone’
People’s creativity is endless. I’m sure that even if all the methods we know now are banned, we can come up with new ways to get our message across. It will be difficult, but it will be possible.
I think it is essential to archive our efforts to continue to remind everyone that the battle is still on and that we are not alone. We have a lot of people fighting with us.