For Beijingers whose morning commute takes them under the Sitong overpass on the hectic north section of the city’s Third Ring Road, October 13th, 2022, will live long in the memory. That was the day that plumes of smoke from a bridge fire drew their attention to two large crimson-daubed banners. One read: “Food, not nucleic acid tests. Freedom, not lockdown. Dignity, not lies. Reform, not Cultural Revolution. Votes, not leaders. Be citizens, not slaves.” The other was an exhortation: “Students and workers, strike and depose the dictatorial traitor [literally: “country thief”] Xi Jinping! Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves! Oppose dictatorship! Save China! One person one vote to elect the Chairman!” The man responsible for both banners and fire stood alone on the bridge, decked out in the garb of a construction worker. As if his actions had left any room for ambiguity, he blasted a pre-recorded message through a loudspeaker, instructing astonished citizens to “Strike and depose the dictatorial traitor Xi Jinping!”
The lighting of a fire was fitting: all that thick smoke belching out over the freeway, burning his message on the Beijing sky. The urgency and alarm of the image matched what he had done—he had taken the private anger felt by so many Chinese and manifested it; made it physically real and shockingly public. Words he had recorded days before in the privacy of his home were now echoing around downtown Beijing; characters he had scrawled in secret were now captured by cameras and seen all over the world. In a totalitarian state, these are unthinkable, blasphemous actions.
Those who criticise Xi Jinping meet with the worst of punishments. Past activists calling for Xi to step down have died within weeks of being sent to prison.One dissident who splashed ink on a poster of the President was sent to a psychiatric hospital, and the staff were given instructions to poison her to death.Even CCP leaders are given no quarter. Party chief Wang Min made the fatal error of quietly grumbling to his chauffeur when Xi passed him over for promotion. The chauffeur reported his comments, and Wang was sentenced to life in prison (his crime was “resistance to Xi’s leadership”).
The bridge protester has gone further than any of these, broadcasting his anti-Xi message to countless commuters, and ultimately around the world. Few people have ever heard of Wang Mei (the activist killed in prison), or Dong Yaoqiong (the woman sent to a psychiatric hospital). Many have now heard of the “Sitong Bridge Warrior,” also referred to as “Bridge Man”—an echo of 1989’s iconic Tank Man—even if they don’t know his name. (It is Peng Lifa.) This notoriety has alarming implications for Peng’s treatment in police custody. Worse, the incident has caused the authorities great embarrassment, occurring as it did during a period of heightened security in the capital prior to the 20th Party Congress. Peng’s remaining days are unlikely to be happy ones.
Footage of the protest shows crowds of people staring up at the overpass, and stopping their motorcycles to record the scene. For many citizens, this must feel like a brief lifting of the veil—a shocking denial of everything they are told is true. Some will feel a surge of excitement as their secret grievances are given voice; others will feel indignation at such blasphemy. But for most, the Sitong Bridge Protest will be like waking from a long slumber. It will feel both thrilling and terrifying: the intrusion of bright reality on their decades-long stupor; the unearthing of all they have repressed and refused to acknowledge. The question now is whether they will sink straight back into sleep again.
Once every few years, the Chinese public is jolted awake by an incident like this. In March 2002, a group of Falun Gong practitioners successfully hijacked Changchun city’s television signals for 50 minutes. They scrambled up telephone poles in the middle of the night, opening hubs and splicing wires. This enabled them to broadcast an exposé of the Party’s lies and propaganda to more than a million citizens. Believing that then-President Jiang Zemin must have been overthrown, people began spilling into the streets and celebrating. But the hijackers were hunted down. All died in custody: some were beaten to death within hours of arrest; some were tortured with electric batons until their hearts stopped; some managing to last a couple of years in prison before succumbing to spinal injuries. And so the people of Changchun suppressed the memory of that strange evening and slipped back into the long Chinese coma.
Could the Sitong Bridge Warrior be more successful? He was detained as protesters are always detained, but we are beginning to see his impact. Over the past fortnight, similar banners have adorned bridges from Los Angeles to Westminster, echoing Peng’s slogans and sometimes adding new ones: “No to Mandarin, yes to our mother tongue.”Anti-Xi posters and placards have cropped up in some 250 universities around the world. Significantly, these are written in Chinese, by mainlanders studying abroad.
Xi has expended Herculean efforts in building a global network of spies and surveillance, with much of it aimed at controlling the Chinese populace when they travel overseas to study or work. But the Sitong Bridge protest is exposing his failure, giving us hints of just how much dissent may be simmering below the surface. The bravery of such dissidents is remarkable. Take Chinese student Han Yutao, who posted a video clip on social media declaring his support for the “Bridge Warrior.” He is studying in Washington State, but his parents and brother back home received a visit from the police. They were warned, ominously, to “distance” themselves from him. Han’s response? “If [the police] contact me, I don’t plan to give in to their arrogance. I will start by telling them how evil the Communist Party is.”
Back in China, of course, those who share footage of the protest online are vanishing into the maw of China’s internal security system. The usual Internet censorship machine is swinging into action, banning the words “bridge” and “Beijing.” Netizens have tried to dodge censors by referencing the incident with the Weibo hashtag “I saw it,” but even those three innocuous words were soon forbidden.This time, however, it isn’t enough to silence people. Peng’s message has been replicated in at least eight Chinese cities so far, including the vast metropolises of Shanghai,Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. His words can be seen in bathroom stalls and bus stations. They can be seen scribbled on the walls of PCR testing booths. Citizens across the country are randomly receiving AirDrop notifications on their phone, informing them, to their great surprise, that “Xi Jinping’s iPhone would like to share a photo.” If they accept, they are shown an image with slogans echoing the bridge protest. Stirrings such as these that suggest a coordinated effort are unheard-of in modern China.
When Peng Lifa set those tyres alight, he kindled his own funeral pyre. There was never any hope for his own future. It was a spectacular example of public self-sacrifice. And yet, as Peng said himself, in a manifesto posted online the morning of his protest, “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” We should remember that the Changchun hijackers lived in an age when the Internet was still relatively new to China, and so their story never got far. And back in 2002, the Chinese population hadn’t been driven to the verge of madness by an ascientific Zero COVID policy. In this new age of mass connectivity and never-ending draconian restrictions, the conditions could be much better for the flames to spread.