BEIJING—Police rushed to a highway bridge in Beijing after a plume of dark smoke appeared above protest banners denouncing Chinese leader Xi Jinping by name—a rare display of defiance in the capital that came as top Communist Party officials arrived to closely monitor the political gathering.
Video footage and photos of the smoke and two banners – one of which had “Get Traitor Dictator Xi Jinping” written in red – were widely circulated on Chinese social media platforms on Thursday.
A man told Wall Street Journal reporters he saw thick smoke and unfurled banners hanging from the bridge at around 1pm local time. Police arrived shortly after seeing the smoke, he said.
Workers at four nearby stores said police officers came to check the situation.
The apparent protest took place on Sitong Bridge, which sits atop a major intersection with a highway overpass and a subway station in Beijing’s affluent Haidian district. The region is home to many of the country’s top universities and technology companies.
“We don’t want nucleic acid tests, we want food. We want Freedom, not Lockdown,” read one of the banners, according to photos and footage shared on social media platforms. “We want votes, not leaders. We want dignity, not lies. We are citizens, not slaves.”
Although the banners could not be seen by the time Journal reporters arrived, the police presence became increasingly evident around the intersection as the afternoon progressed.
Along a strip of shops, a policeman went door-to-door talking to shopkeepers, while several police vehicles were stationed at every corner. Officers directed traffic, which was otherwise normal for a Thursday afternoon. The overpass appeared to have been cleared, leaving no visible signs of fire or smoke damage when Journal reporters drove by in a vehicle.
As the twice-a-decade Communist Party congress is set to begin on Sunday, security in central Beijing has been tightened, with police and volunteers stationed at intersections and pedestrian and vehicle overpasses. Police or security personnel were present at most of the overpasses along the highway near the scene of the incident.
The circumstances of the incident and the identity of anyone involved could not be determined. The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The apparent protest was as brazen as it was short-lived. Public calls for Mr Xi’s ouster are extremely rare inside China, where he has built a state-of-the-art surveillance state designed to stamp out direct challenges to his rule. Such outward signs of rebellion are even more unusual in Beijing, where security is particularly tight.
At the party congress, Mr Xi is certain to announce his third term as the rule-breaking leader. Delegates to the conclave began arriving in Beijing on Thursday, state media reported.
Mr Xi enjoyed widespread support for most of his first decade in power, but there are signs that his persistent tough approach to containing Covid-19 is eroding his popularity. Repeated rounds of mass testing and lockdowns in response to even small outbreaks have severely damaged the country’s economy, driving year-over-year economic growth to near zero in the second quarter.
The measures are also having a psychological impact on millions of residents who have been confined to their homes, sometimes for weeks and often with uncertain access to food and medical care.
Covid cases in China are rising again as the country’s National Health Commission on Thursday recorded more than 1,400 locally transmitted infections in the previous day. Several Chinese cities also reported infections last week from the new Omicron BF.7 and BA.5.1.7 subvariants, sparking concerns of another outbreak ahead of the Communist Party congress.
China’s increasingly sophisticated censorship makes it difficult to gauge public opinion in the country, but bursts of online activity after sudden events can sometimes bypass automated monitors to provide a glimpse of unfiltered reactions.
On China’s closely monitored internet, searches for “Sitong Bridge” returned no results. Within hours, hashtag searches for “Haidian District” and even “Beijing” were eliminated from any results, just as traffic on the country’s Twitter-like Weibo platform showed a spike in searches for both terms.
“#Haidian# tiny spark,” one Weibo user wrote in the short time before the censors were shut down, referencing a revolutionary saying made famous by Mao Zedong: “A tiny spark can set the prairie on fire.”
Write to Yoko Kubota at [email protected], Jonathan Cheng at [email protected] and Joyu Wang at [email protected]
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