A rare protest against Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his policies was swiftly ended in Beijing Thursday, just days before he is set to secure a third term in power at a key meeting of the ruling Communist Party.
Photos circulating on Twitter Thursday afternoon show two banners hung on an overpass of a major thoroughfare in the northwest of the Chinese capital, protesting against Xi’s unrelenting zero-Covid policy and authoritarian rule.
“Say no to Covid test, yes to food. No to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to lies, yes to dignity. No to cultural revolution, yes to reform. No to great leader, yes to vote. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen,” reads one banner.
“Go on strike, remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping,” reads the other.
The photos and videos also show plumes of smoke billowing from the bridge, and a voice recording of the protest slogans played on loudspeaker.
CNN cannot independently verify the images and footage, but has geolocated them to Sitong Bridge, an overpass on Beijing’s Third Ring Road in Haidian district.
When CNN arrived at Sitong Bridge around 3.30 p.m. Thursday, no protesters or banners could be seen. However, a large number of security personnel were on the overpass and in the vicinity. Security personnel were also spotted patrolling every overpass CNN drove by on the Third Ring Road.
Chinese authorities have yet to comment on the incident. CNN has reached out to Beijing police for comment.
The protest sent China’s stringent online censorship into overdrive.
Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, immediately censored search results for “Sitong Bridge,” the site of the protest. Before long, key words including “Beijing,” “Haidian,” “warrior,” “brave man,” and even “courage” were restricted from search.
Numerous accounts on Weibo and WeChat, the super-app essential for daily life in China, have been banned after commenting on – or alluding to – the protest.
Still, many spoke out to express their support and awe. Some shared the Chinese pop hit “Lonely Warrior” in a veiled reference to the protester, who some called a “hero,” while others swore never to forget, posting under the hashtag: “I saw it.”
“Thank you for letting me still see hope for this land,” one comment said.
“The person has disappeared, the name of the site has disappeared, so many words are disappearing. But there are so many Chinese characters, so many pair of eyes. Can you censor us all?” said another.
Public protest against the top leadership is extremely rare in China, especially in the run-up to important political meetings, when authorities turn Beijing into a fortress to maintain security and stability. The twice-a-decade Communist Party national congress is the most important event on China’s political calendar.
At the 20th Party Congress beginning on Sunday, Xi is widely expected to break with recent norms and extend his rule for another term, potentially paving the way for lifelong rule.
Xi, the most powerful and authoritarian Chinese leader in decades, has waged a sweeping crackdown to crush dissent, both within the party and in wider society.
His draconian zero-Covid policy has fueled growing public frustration, as rolling lockdowns upend lives and wreak havoc on the economy.