BEIJING—Police rushed to a highway bridge in Beijing after a column of dark smoke appeared above protest banners condemning Chinese leader
by name—a rare display of defiance in the capital that came as top Communist Party officials arrived to attend a closely watched political gathering.
Video footage and photographs of the smoke and two banners—one of which had “Depose the Traitorous Dictator Xi Jinping” scrawled on it in red—circulated widely on Chinese social-media platforms Thursday.
One man told Wall Street Journal reporters he saw the thick smoke and the unfurled banners hanging from the bridge at about 1 p.m. local time. Police arrived shortly after he saw the smoke, he said.
Employees at four stores in the vicinity said police officers came to check on the situation.
The apparent protest occurred on the Sitong Bridge, situated atop a major intersection with a highway overpass and a subway station in Beijing’s affluent Haidian district. The area is home to several of the country’s top universities and technology companies.
“We Don’t Want Nucleic Acid Tests, We Want Food; We Want Freedom, Not Lockdowns,” one of the banners read, according to the photos and footage shared on social-media platforms. “We Want Votes, Not Leaders; We Want Dignity, Not Lies; We are Citizens, not Slaves.”
Though the banners couldn’t be seen by the time Journal reporters arrived, the police presence grew increasingly prominent around the intersection as the afternoon progressed.
Along one strip of stores, a police officer went door to door speaking to shopkeepers, while a number of police vehicles were stationed at each corner. Police officers directed traffic flow, which was otherwise normal for a Thursday afternoon. The overpass appeared to have been cleaned up.
As the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress is set to begin Sunday, security in central Beijing has grown tighter, with police officers and volunteers posted at intersections and on pedestrian and vehicle overpasses. Most overpasses along the highway near the site of the incident featured police officers or security men.
The circumstances of the incident and the identity of anyone involved couldn’t be determined. The Public Security Bureau of Beijing municipality didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The apparent protest was as brazen as it was short-lived. Public demands for Mr. Xi’s ouster are exceptionally rare inside China, where he has rolled out a cutting-edge surveillance state designed to eliminate direct challenges to his rule. Such outward signs of rebellion are even more unusual in Beijing, where security is particularly suffocating.
At the party congress, Mr. Xi is all but certain to announce his norm-breaking third term as leader. Delegates to the conclave began arriving in Beijing on Thursday, state media reported.
Mr. Xi has enjoyed broad support during most of his first decade in power, but there are signs that his persistent hard-line approach to containing Covid-19 is eroding his popularity. Repeated rounds of mass testing and lockdowns in response to even minor of outbreaks have badly damaged the country’s economy, driving year-over-year economic growth to near-zero in the second quarter.
The measures have also taken a psychological toll on millions of residents who have been confined to their homes, sometimes for weeks and often with uncertain access to food and medical care.
Covid cases in China were on the rise again as the country’s National Health Commission on Thursday recorded more than 1,400 locally transmitted infections for the previous day. Several Chinese cities have also reported infections over the past week of the new Omicron subvariants BF.7 and BA.5.1.7, sparking concerns of another outbreak ahead of the Communist Party congress.
China’s increasingly sophisticated censorship makes it difficult to gauge public opinion in the country, but bursts of online activity in the wake of sudden events can sometimes outrun automated monitoring programs to provide a glimpse of unfiltered reactions.
On China’s closely monitored internet, searches for “Sitong Bridge” returned no results. Within hours, hashtag searches for “Haidian District” and even “Beijing” were scrubbed of any results, just as traffic on the country’s
platform showed a spike in searches for both terms. Search for “brave man” also returned no results.
Hu Xijin, former editor in chief of a Communist Party-backed newspaper and one of the country’s most prominent internet commentators, wrote Thursday on Twitter that “China is currently stable, especially its capital Beijing. The COVID-19 epidemic has been well controlled here. In Beijing, there is no public dissatisfaction caused by epidemic control as in some other remote places in China.”
“#Haidian# tiny spark,” one Weibo user wrote in the short window of time before censors closed in, alluding to a revolutionary saying made famous by Mao Zedong: “A tiny spark can set the prairie ablaze.”
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