Wang Miao quickly pinned a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping onto a bulletin board at the university she attends in New York. It was the Chinese freshman’s first act of protest, and the poster carried a clear message: “Dictator Out.” “I was nervous,” Wang said. Through the classroom door, she had to keep an eye on her friend, someone she referred to as a “little pink” — a young supporter of China’s Communist Party — who had lingered to ask the teacher questions after class. Even at the university, some 7,000 miles from Beijing, Wang worried that her friend might report her.
“To be honest, I’m still scared,” she said. Wang, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and is using a pseudonym because of the sensitivity of the issue, was keenly aware of the costs she might face in China for speaking out. But a slogan from another chapter of Chinese history propelled her forward. “Mao Zedong once said a single spark can start a huge blaze,” she told Grid.
Wang is one of a growing group of Chinese students on more than 250 campuses in some 100 cities around the world who have hung similar posters in the past week, according to Voice of CN, a group of young Chinese people who oppose the government. The movement began last week, following one of the most startling episodes of public dissent inside China in recent memory.
On Oct. 13, a protester draped two banners from Sitong Bridge in Beijing, bearing blunt criticism of Xi and his policies. It was a rare political protest, and all the more brazen given the timing: It was the eve of China’s twice-a-decade party congress, at which Xi is expected to gain a third term. The protester, who many now believe was a 48-year-old essayist with the pen name Peng, took to the bridge in an apparent attempt to stop that. Among the phrases on the banners were, “We want freedom not zero-covid,” pointing to Xi’s controversial covid management strategy, and “Depose the traitorous despot Xi Jinping.”
“I think it’s a big event even though it’s one person,” Chen Pokong, a U.S.-based Chinese dissident who helped spearhead the Tiananmen Square protests in Guangzhou, China, more than three decades ago, told Grid: “He was like the Tank Man in 1989 in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. … After 33 years we have a ‘Bridge Man.’”
Beijing’s “Bridge Man” was hauled off by police officers. The protester’s true identity, fate and whereabouts are not known. But the protest and its offshoots have been recognized outside of China as the most high-profile acts of dissent in what has already been a turbulent year for the country. People have taken to the streets — and to their screens — to protest zero-covid lockdowns and a real estate crisis that has left many without the homes they’ve paid for, among other issues. Data from the last decade shows that protests are not uncommon in China, but has the country entered a new era of dissent?
China is no stranger to protests
While “protest” and “China” may conjure images of 1989 and Tiananmen Square, recent data paints a different, more nuanced picture. The vast majority of protests in China involve a handful of people and target local officials and issues, according to a 2019 study by Christian Goebel, a professor of China studies at the University of Vienna.
Despite the party’s tight control, these protests are surprisingly widespread. Recent official data is hard to come by — the government stopped publishing its statistics on what it refers to as “mass incidents” a decade ago, likely because the rising numbers had grown embarrassing for the party, said Teresa Wright, a political scientist at California State University, Long Beach, who has studied dissent in China. The last number — for 2010 — was an eye-popping 180,000, but scholars cautioned that it was unclear exactly how the government was defining “mass incidents.”
A more recent count provides a clearer picture. A Chinese activist, Lu Yuyu, scoured the web and published a data set of all the protests in China that were mentioned online between 2013 and 2016. In the last year he published the data set, the number of protests was 30,000. Lu’s research ended with his arrest and jailing in 2017.
Goebel has taken up the mantle of collecting the data and found that the number of protests has fallen somewhat since, as the government has pushed people to use official hotlines and petitions to voice their complaints. But localized dissent is still a feature of life in China.
What people are mad about
Social media posts suggest that a primary cause for protest in China is labor disputes, accounting for 40 percent of the total as of 2016. Most of these have involved issues of compensation, particularly among migrant workers complaining about their wages before heading home for Chinese New Year, Goebel wrote in his study. Another main driver of protest is real estate problems, which have surged in recent years — mostly disgruntled homeowners taking issue with real estate and property management companies.
China scholars have argued that the party allows for these protests to go forward because they are aimed at local authorities rather than the national government, and as such they often help the authorities in Beijing uncover issues at the grassroots level. In that way, these protests may actually be a tool for the regime’s stability rather than a threat to it.
What the “Bridge Man” did was, of course, utterly different. And his demand of “freedom not zero-covid” is a reminder of the one issue that has recently appeared to trump the rest.
In 2022, more anger online
While in-person protests appear to be declining in number, 2022 has been a year of notable dissent in China, both on- and offline. “Although protests have decreased, you could see that disobedience online has increased,” Goebel said.
Xi’s zero-covid policy, imposed since the initial lockdown in Wuhan, China, in early 2020, has been a key target. Much of the pushback against the draconian policy has come via social media. During this year’s first big lockdown in the northwestern city of Xi’an, residents called out the local government for failing to deliver food to some neighborhoods. The outcry crescendoed soon after, during the two-month Shanghai lockdown, as that city’s 25 million residents suffered similar hardships. People across China shared “Voices of April,” a six-minute video documenting life under the lockdowns — people struggling to find food and medical care. That video and other online complaints became a national outcry, one that regularly involved a race to outpace China’s digital censors.
These protests have sometimes spilled into the streets. In Shanghai, residents in one apartment complex came together to block neighboring empty buildings from being used as a quarantine center, and police pushed back violently. In May, hundreds of students at Beijing University gathered to demand an end to their campus lockdown.
Another major series of protests this year followed the collapse of four rural banks in Henan, China, a financial crisis that cut hundreds of thousands of depositors off from billions of dollars in savings. In July, about 1,000 people gathered at the central bank building in Zhengzhou, a city of 11 million and the capital of Henan province, to demand that the banks return their frozen assets. Many protesters were beaten by thugs, apparently sent by the local government, but they prevailed, at least in part: Many are now getting reimbursed by the banking regulator for their losses, although some with larger deposits are still pushing for full repayment.
Echoing the trends seen in Goebel’s data set, confrontations between homeowners and real estate companies have also been widespread this year. In China, it is common for people to buy “pre-sold” homes that have yet to be built. People start paying mortgages on these homes even before they are handed over. But recently, amid a major real estate downturn, developers have lagged far behind schedule, and frustration has boiled over. In more than 100 cities, homeowners’ associations have banded together and pledged to stop making their mortgage payments until their apartments are completed. Others have protested by physically occupying construction sites to demand that developers restart construction. “There is almost no day without a real estate protest,” Goebel said.
And then there’s the Sitong Bridge protest. Protests that directly target the top leadership are almost unheard of. “Really, since 1989, we’ve seen almost nothing in terms of this sort of protest,” said Wright. While the “Bridge Man” appears to have acted alone, the protester’s message has resonated even inside the censored walls of the Chinese internet. Goebel monitored online comments after the incident and saw many supportive posts; people posted terms like “bridge” and “brave person” on social media until censors cracked down. The word has continued to spread across China to some extent; Voice of CN has catalogued posters or graffiti echoing the original banners in 30 Chinese cities.
What does it amount to?
Where the “Bridge Man” protest graffiti has been scrawled says a lot about the level of control in China today: Many of the messages can be found on bathroom stall doors, where protesters are more likely to be shielded from the omnipresent eye of China’s surveillance cameras.
Chinese citizens have been able to exploit these small spaces off- and online to push their messages. Creative social media tactics sometimes allow them to outpace censors — at least for a few hours. For example, many people recently used a hashtag from a state media broadcast criticizing the U.S. for its human rights record to call out China’s own domestic human rights issues. It took censors several hours to catch on to the irony, because there were no keywords for the algorithms to flag. The Zhengzhou bank protesters were also ultimately able to dodge surveillance and censorship. A group of them told Reuters how their previous protest plans were foiled; the police were ready before they arrived, having spied on their WeChat messages. Eventually they moved their planning to secured communication lines using virtual private networks, or VPNs, and broke into smaller WeChat groups that were harder to monitor. Through that coordinated effort, they were able to pull off their major July protest.
“I think it’s still possible [to get around censors]. And I think that protest exemplifies that potential,” said Wright.
But the reality is that China’s system of control is largely working. If the digital world has offered avenues for protest, technology has also helped the censorship system, which has kept the bridge protest messages from becoming more widespread. One Chinese PhD student who has put up posters at his school, Penn State University, has seen first-hand the reach of that system. He told Grid that he tried to share information about the protests and issues with China’s political system on WeChat with friends and family back home, but his messages couldn’t get through. Now his account is partially blocked from view. “I think they are targeting just me. They aren’t using algorithms anymore.” he said. “I’m not going to try to send out sensitive stuff on WeChat again … that was kind of stupid.”
The extent of control is of course far greater inside China — and it’s more extreme in certain parts of the country. In Xinjiang and Tibet, ubiquitous surveillance on- and offline makes it even more difficult for people to voice dissent. That was clear from Lu’s data set, which showed very few protests in those areas, despite the longstanding friction between ethnic minorities and the government.
The state also deters protests by making certain protesters pay a high price. While most protesters rallying against local issues face minor punishments, Wright noted that for political protesters, the costs are immense. “Mr. Peng [the ‘Bridge Man’] will be sentenced to more than 10 years. And more horrible is that he may be tortured — abused heavily in jail,” said Chen, who was forced to perform hard labor while in prison in the 1990s after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Those who eventually get out of prison live under constant surveillance. During important political events like the party congress, dissidents in Beijing are often “traveled” away from the city — a tactic that involves minders trotting the dissidents to popular tourist sites to give the outside world the impression they are being well-treated, while keeping them from making trouble in the capital.
Despite these risks, the overseas Chinese students who spoke to Grid said they are planning to continue putting up posters, while being careful not to attract unwanted attention. Their protests are highly unlikely to bring down the regime; but the “Bridge Man,” and those he has inspired, have not gone unnoticed.
“We tend to frame it all, in terms of, ‘Is China going to collapse or not?’ and I think this is not the question. This is not something that Chinese leaders are concerned with,” said Goebel. “But they are concerned with rising unhappiness, because this might in the end lead to something undesirable, like a reservoir of bad feelings building up, and this is something that they do not want.”
He added, “They are trying to preserve this environment where everywhere looks like everybody is supporting the party, and every show of discontent calls this narrative into question.”
Cleo Li-Schwartz contributed to this report. Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.