How Chinese students extend the “Bridge Man” spirit by initiating an anti-Xi poster movement abroad
Chinese leader Xi Jinping consolidated his authority following the 20th Party Congress in Beijing last weekend, but the impact of a rare protest on Situng bridge in Beijing prior to the Congress continues to spread. Some Chinese students who participated in a worldwide movement of putting up anti-Xi posters say if the lone protester can do something like that in Beijing while knowing the risks he would face, they should be able to do something to support him too.
As expected, Chinese leader Xi Jinping cemented his third term in power and stacked the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party with his loyalists following the Twentieth Party Congress in Beijing last weekend. However, within the country and abroad, the anti-Xi dissents never disappear.
The “Situng Bridge incident,” where a lone protester surnamed Peng staged a solo protest with slogans demanding freedom, democracy, and more rights, has triggered similar protests across China and the world. Following the protest on October 13, many people described him as “the Bridge Man” and over the last few weeks, they have displayed posters and banners to criticize Xi and the Chinese government.
In a widely circulated video on Twitter, two women walked on the street of possibly Shanghai with a banner that said “I don’t want, I want, I don’t want, I want…” while singing the prominent left-wing anthem of “The Internationale.” During the Congress, Chinese citizens reportedly wrote down protest slogans at bus stops or public bathrooms in Beijing, Xi’an, and other cities across China.
In Hong Kong, a 27-year-old Chinese man was arrested by Hong Kong police for allegedly putting up posters on a bulletin board in the Legislative Council Building with the “intent to make readers hate or defy the central government and leaders of China. According to Hong Kong media, one of the posters had a picture of Xi Jinping with the words “Step Down Dictator” printed on it.
Teng Biao, a Chinese legal scholar teaching at Hunter College in New York, says these actions are a direct reflection of the “very widespread” discontent and anger of the Chinese people toward Xi Jinping. “Some women have taken to the streets to display banners that say ‘no’ and ‘yes’ and blank, and some have written protest slogans in public toilets to express their discontent,” he said.
“All of these show that the long-standing suppression and denial of basic rights in China is becoming too much for more and more people to bear. This, coupled with the irrational pandemic prevention policies of the past three years, which have brought great suffering to the Chinese people and caused great loss of life, health, and property, has created widespread public resentment,” he added.
Overseas Chinese students show solidarity
Apart from sporadic signs of protest in China, overseas Chinese students have taken to social media to facilitate protests at hundreds of universities across the world. Many students put posters on bulletin boards on campuses or distribute flyers printed with protest slogans. Betty, who is currently studying in the UK, is one of them.
“There are only a few Chinese students at my school, and everyone normally only pays attention to events or incidents,” she said. “But in recent days, they also began to put posters up on bulletin boards.”
According to her, most of these protests are voluntary, and they have a certain level of organizing behind them, which helps these initiatives gain more traction. She says the messages that the “Bridge Man” tried to spread through his banners were powerful, because his slogans touched on people’s basic needs in China, especially when authorities impose strict zero-Covid measures over the last three years.
“During the pandemic, many Chinese people can’t go home, and the lives of some of their family members in China have become serious issues,” she said. “What Mr. Peng wrote on those banners is very powerful, and when he was able to stage a protest alone in Beijing, why can’t we do the same abroad?”
Ava, another Chinese student going to school in Canada, is also inspired by the “Bridge Man.” On October 17, she and around 10 other friends printed out flyers and began to distribute them on campus. According to her, while quite a lot of students took their flyers, some students who were scared of taking the flyers expressed support to them verbally. Even though some students questioned their stance, they were able to engage in frank and civil conversation.
“A lot of young people have discontent about social issues such as labor issues, mistreatment of women, and minority issues in China, but since they think they may be alone in this, they are usually scared of the consequences,” she said.
“When they see a person like the ‘Bridge Man,’ the inspiration helps them overcome this sense of fear inside them. It’s like if he can do it in Beijing, knowing the fatal risk of it, what can we do?” she added.
According to Ava, the “Bridge Man” is a very local symbol of young people who care about situations in Chinese society. “He didn’t only call for liberty and democracy at an abstract level, he also called for food and life instead of Covid tests,” she said. “He tapped into the Chinese reality and the real problems on the ground. That’s also an important part of the whole ‘Bridge Man’ inspiration.”
Yangyang Cheng, a research scholar at Yale Law School, says the Bridge Man’s action proved that protest is possible in China. “His sacrifice helped more people recognize their own power,” she said. “The Bridge Man proved a possibility and showed others that they too have a choice.”
Using social media to rally solidarity
In this global movement of putting up posters, two key Instagram accounts, Citizens Daily CN and Northern Square, play important roles in facilitating the worldwide initiative. According to the team behind Citizens Daily, they have received close to 2000 photos of protest posters from more than 300 universities across the world since October 13. Most of the content is echoing the slogans on the Bridge Man’s banners.
“At first, we were surprised to see such a person doing such a thing at this time because we knew how much risk he was taking,” they said. “When we saw how brave someone could be in China, we wondered if we should do something more.”
According to Citizens Daily, after they saw some initial posters shared on social media, they made a poster with black letters on a white background, explaining in simple English why we are displaying the poster and translating the six slogans on the Bridge Man’s banner.
“At the bottom of the poster was the line ‘Print and Share’, a simple call to action, hoping that more people would understand the cause and train their courage through action,” they said. “We try to share every submission we receive so that whoever takes part in the movement will feel involved.”
In order to continue the movement inspired by the Bridge Man, Citizens Daily initiated a new movement called “thepostermovement” on social media, hoping to let the international community better understand overseas Chinese people’s cause by sharing posters put up by Chinese students around the world.
“Our goal is to help people reconnect, to chase away fear, loneliness and doubt through discussion and action,” they said. “Many of the submissions we received said it was the first time they had participated in an offline event like putting up posters, but after doing it once, they felt they had gained new feelings and insights.”
“We have set up private groups for overseas Chinese students in London, New York, Southern California, Toronto and Australia to give more people space to safely exchange resources and organize events,” they added.
How long can the poster movement last?
According to “the Northern Square,” some posters put up by Chinese students have been taken down while others were followed by unknown individuals or warned being reported to authorities. Ava in Canada shares similar experiences.
Even though the protest was largely well-received on that day, she and her friends did receive information about some groups trying to organize counter-protests on the same day. “They even threatened to send videos of us to the consulate,” she said. “We were quite scared of some physical violence or harassment happening.”
“On that day, there were two or three people watching us from a distance and trying to take photos of us. When we tried to engage with them, they just didn’t want to talk to us,” she added.
Under such circumstances, how much longer can this movement last? Ava thinks since overseas Chinese students are far from reality in China, it can be difficult for them to sustain the movement. “If we do orient ourselves and try to connect to networks in China as much as possible, I believe there is hope there,” she said.
“We do have resources and we do have the higher risk-taking ability. If we can try to funnel resources and support to the on-the-ground movement in China whether large scale or small scale they are, I think there are ways moving forward,” she added.
Betty in the UK thinks while it’s unrealistic to try to maintain the movement in China, it’s possible to sustain the movement abroad. “We are only doing things within our capacity, and it’s hard for me to measure the actual impact of our actions,” she said. “However, I hope more people will join the movement, even though we don’t know how far we can go.”
Additionally, she hopes overseas Chinese people can understand that they can’t just leave things in China behind once they are abroad. “If we don’t stop China from expanding its influence, it will escalate the scale of their operations, and one day, it could affect our freedoms abroad,” she said.
Chinese legal scholar Teng Biao says while the cost and risk of taking the initiatives in China are high due to the repression and surveillance system, if overseas Chinese can work hard, they can make their actions more visible and impactful.
“It would be very difficult to sustain these actions with only courage from people in China because very few people can take such risks,” he said. “Without the support and solidarity of the international community, the future of China’s struggle is also very bleak.”
This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.