- A rare and dramatic protest in Beijing that criticized President Xi Jinping has sparked an online search for the mysterious protester’s identity, as well as praise for the action.
While state media has remained silent, photos and videos of Thursday’s event have circulated widely online, prompting a swift crackdown by censors on social media platforms and the WeChat app used by most Chinese.
Thursday’s protest took place on the eve of a historic Communist Party congress, where Xi will receive a third term as party chief, consolidating his grip on power.
The person also set fire to what appeared to be car tires and could be heard chanting slogans on a loudspeaker.
Reports say one person has been arrested in connection with the protest. Footage from the incident showed police officers surrounding the person, who was wearing a yellow helmet and orange clothing.
The BBC has asked local police for comment.
Many have praised the lone protester’s actions, calling them a “hero” and referring to them as the “new Tank Man,” a reference to the unknown Chinese man who stood in front of tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
Online detectives have tried to track down the person, focusing on a Chinese investigator and physicist from a village in the northern province of Heilongjiang. A BBC check with village officials confirmed that a man by that name used to live there.
He had published what appeared to be a manifesto on the popular research site ResearchGate. This was later withdrawn, although others have uploaded copies of it since then.
In the 23-page document, he called for a strike and acts of civil disobedience, such as breaking Covid testing stations, on Sunday. This was to prevent “dictator Xi Jinping from illegally continuing in office so that China can embark on the path to democracy and freedom.”
Some Chinese have congregated on the man’s two Twitter accounts, posting what they claimed were his photos and writing hundreds of grateful messages.
“You are a hero and you have my respect,” one person wrote, while another said, “I salute the village hero! I hope you can go back safely!”
The man’s name is among the protest-related material that has been censored online. No references to the incident could be found on the Chinese social media site Weibo until Friday morning.
Images and images of the protest and related keywords, including “Haidian,” “Beijing protester,” and “Sitong Bridge,” were quickly removed. Phrases tangentially related to the protest, including “bridge” and “hero,” also yielded limited results.
Although Chinese media have not reported on the incident, former Global Times editor Hu Xijin appeared to refer to it when he tweeted Thursday night that the “vast majority” of the Chinese people supported Communist Party rule and were “hoping for stability and opposing agitation.”
Many Chinese have reported that their accounts on social media platforms or WeChat, China’s largest messaging app, had been temporarily banned after they shared images of the protest or posted messages alluding to the protest.
The BBC has contacted Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, for confirmation.
In 2018, a woman who disfigured a poster of Xi, saying she opposed his “tyranny,” was later admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
The Beijing protester’s actions come at a particularly sensitive time politically, and thousands of police officers are expected to mobilize across the capital ahead of the week-long party congress.
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