Three days before the Chinese Communist Party convened its 20th congress, a 48-year-old man draped protest banners from Beijing's Sitong Bridge bearing messages that were visible from one of the city's busiest transportation routes.
The handwritten banners called for students and workers to strike and remove the "dictator and state traitor Xi Jinping."
Then Peng Lifa, whose online name is Peng Zaizhou, further challenged China's President Xi Jinping, shouting through a loudspeaker, "We want to eat. We want freedom. We want votes!"
International media have covered Peng's Oct. 13 protest, but China's official media remain silent, and officials are attempting to censor online references to it, focusing instead on the party meeting held once every five years. This session is widely expected to result in an extraordinary third term for Xi Jinping as CCP general secretary. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, when asked about the protest at the daily press briefing on Oct. 14, said she knew nothing about it.
Yet news of Peng's protest spread in China, and other protest signs have since appeared. Due to the dense coverage of surveillance cameras in China, however, most of them have been found in public bathrooms and locations without closed-circuit TV monitoring.
Many WeChat users were temporarily or permanently banned from the platform for posting or reposting images or text messages about the banners. Authorities blocked countless words deemed sensitive, including "Sitong Bridge," "strike" and "warrior." Almost overnight, additional security guards were deployed to watch overpasses throughout Beijing around the clock.
At least one man is ready to come to Peng's aid. Mo Shaoping, a Beijing-based lawyer who served as a defense attorney for Chinese government critic and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, told VOA Mandarin that he would represent Peng if asked by Peng's family.
According to Mo, Peng is suspected of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," "inciting subversion of state power," and "subverting state power" — the most serious charge. Authorities have not commented on Peng's case.
Spreading Peng's words
Gu Guoping, a retired university teacher in Shanghai, has been reposting pictures and videos of Peng's anti-Xi slogans on his Twitter account "Mr. Gu (Fanmin)" since Oct. 13. On Saturday, he reposted slogans and leaflets found in Beijing's public restrooms. These have been deleted, as have his reposts of overseas protests against the CCP and Xi and of calls for the release of Peng by students attending overseas universities. His new account contains some of his reposts on the overpass protest. Police arrested Gu on Monday.
On Tuesday, Hu Jia, a Beijing-based dissident who had been under house arrest for several years because of his human rights advocacy and outspoken criticism of CCP authorities, told VOA Mandarin that the terms of his detention had changed.
He had been allowed to go shopping or visit his parents in another part of Beijing, but he was always followed by plainclothes police.
But, as commonly happens to dissidents before politically important events such as the party congress, Hu's house-arrest status changed, and he was forced to temporarily leave his residence so he could be more easily monitored. In Hu's case, he was made to travel to the southwestern province of Sichuan.
On a phone call with VOA Mandarin, Hu sounded out of breath, saying that he couldn't talk much because state security officers were nearby.
When asked if he had heard about the Sitong Bridge protest in Beijing, he replied, "I really admire that."
In addition to Hu, veteran Beijing reporter Gao Yu, Beijing human rights activist Li Meiqing, and former prosecutor and dissident Shen Liangqing, in Anhui province, were among the many taken on forced trips during the party congress.
Over the past few days, many internet influencers have taken to Twitter and YouTube to comment on the protest and appeal for public support.
On the day of the overpass protest, Wang Dan, a political scientist and former leader of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, told VOA Mandarin that the banners were significant.
"In such a dark era, when almost everyone remains silent, the courage of this brave man to stand up for himself is extremely astonishing," Wang said. "It is not an exaggeration to call him a contemporary Tank Man," he added, referring to the iconic photo of the still-unidentified person who confronted Chinese army tanks deployed to quell the Tiananmen protests.
"Regardless of the future of this man, this feat has and will go down in history," Wang continued. "It will tell future generations that even in the darkest of times, there are people who will stand up for themselves. This warrior is doing justice for 1.4 billion Chinese people and is a representative of the Chinese soul."