China’s Communist Party is holding a key political meeting in Beijing on Sunday, where there is little doubt that the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, will be confirmed for an unprecedented third five-year term as the party’s general secretary.
As is typical for this twice-a-decade leadership meeting, authorities in Beijing have tightened security, shutting down roads and increasing patrols to ensure everything goes smoothly.
But that has not stopped some Chinese from speaking out, risking lengthy prison sentences.
On Thursday, someone hung large white banners with red characters on a major city overpass in Beijing’s northwestern Haidian district. The banner called Xi a “dictator” and urged students and workers to go on strike. Other banners protested China’s stringent zero-COVID policy.
In addition to the banners, smoke rose from a small fire, apparently lit by whoever hung the banners to draw more attention to their message. Images of the display were quickly blocked online in China. Private chat groups that shared videos and images on China’s social media app WeChat were shut down, but the content continued to be shared and spread on Twitter, which is blocked in China.
One bird’s-eye view video of the scene on the overpass, shared by Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s East Asia correspondent Bill Birtles on Twitter, showed police rushing in to remove the banners and the arrival of a firetruck to put out the fire.
In his post, Birtles said: “Such a small protest elsewhere wouldn’t be worth so much attention but in Beijing…”
Xi’s strict COVID policies and frequent lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus have hit China’s economy hard and are a source of growing public discontent ahead of the meetings. Earlier this week, the Communist Party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily, published an opinion piece urging the public to be patient with the country’s stringent zero-COVID policy.
“Confidence is more important than gold in the fight against the epidemic,” the article said. It went on to argue that the country’s approach to the pandemic was “scientific” and in line with the country’s “national conditions.”
Critical comments on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo were blocked, but some managed to slip through. In one popular post, one user joked that what gets zeroed first in the People’s Daily is the website’s comment section. Another said: “If the People’s Daily can’t be commented on, then who are the people and who are representing the people?”
Among the phrases on the banners in Beijing on Thursday, was one that read: “We don’t want PCR tests, we want to eat.” Another: “We don’t want a Cultural Revolution, we want reforms.”
One online campaign that is said to have been initiated by reformists within the party called the "Three-Anti Movement” is opposed to COVID testing, lockdowns and taking the country backward.
There has been a four-page open letter “Petition to Xi Jinping to Step Down” sent from democracy advocates overseas to the delegates of the Party Congress. The petition gave a detailed account of Xi’s abuses of power, including the initial concealing of the COVID outbreak, military threats toward Taiwan, his crackdown on human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.
Xi seeks lifetime appointment?
The angst and criticism directed at Xi is playing out online in China and overseas and is unlikely to stop him from receiving a third term or possibly becoming China’s supreme leader for many years to come.
Li Nanyang, daughter of the late Mao Zedong's secretary Li Rui and a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, told VOA Mandarin that she is convinced Xi wants to be China’s supreme leader for life, just like Mao.
Over the past decade, Xi has purged the party and military dissident factions and amended the constitution and party constitution so he can be re-elected indefinitely. Before Xi came to power, former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao established a precedent by stepping down as party chief after two terms.
“While everyone else has to step down when the term is over, including the chairman of the NPC and the premier, these are both two terms,” Li said. “When he becomes a lone old man and is surrounded by a bunch of young people, he is in a very dangerous situation. I don't think he sees this. Those young people have no respect for him. They will not be subdued.”