On October 13, just three days before the opening of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), two hand-written protest banners appeared on Sitong Bridge, located in Beijing. In simple language, the sole protester called on the government to stop its zero-COVID strategy and continue to conduct economic reforms, and advocated for democracy and the removal of “dictator” Xi Jinping.
In 2018, the authoritarian leader repealed constitutional term limits and created a path for him to stay as China’s top leader indefinitely. At the 20th Party Congress, Xi indeed secured a third term for himself as CCP general secretary and once again avoided naming a potential successor.
Chinese police quickly stopped the one-person protest on Sitong Bridge. But this rare protest inspired further actions on social media and in multiple locations around the world. With hashtags such as #Notmypresident, #endxictatorship, and #FreeChina, internet users demonstrated their anger and disapproval of the Chinese regime and Xi Jinping’s ambition to rule the country for a third term – or even for life.
In addition to online activities and social media posts, people started to take action to support the lone protester in Beijing by replicating and sharing protest banners with similar messages in public places around the world. Similar banners have been seen on university campuses in the United States, Canada, Australia, and many other democratic nations. In China, despite intense government censorship and surveillance measures, people used Apple’s AirDrop function to send protest pictures randomly to other iPhone users. Others used a less high-tech method: writing messages in public bathrooms to evade surveillance cameras and state security personnel. Those efforts caught more attention from reputable media outlets such as the BBC, Strait Times, CNN, Vice, and New York Times.
It is not the first time that online political campaigns against the Chinese regime gathered significant support. The poster campaign is similar to the Great Translation Movement, which began shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Both campaigns do not have a specific leadership team or any known organizers; they are mainly based on anonymous collection actions with generic requirements.
The Poster Campaign has a general direction of sharing and displaying posters calling for the end of authoritarianism in China. People who share similar beliefs take action in public places such as university campuses, public parks, and bulletin boards on the streets, all based on their personal volition rather than instructions from a centralized authority.
The Poster Campaign has the goal of raising awareness of authoritarianism in China and demonstrating the protesters’ disapproval of the regime. The campaign has succeeded in accomplishing those two objectives. The visible presence of messages, memes and digital content opposing the Chinese regime confronted key narratives from the Chinese Communist Party. While the CCP vows to represent the interests of the Chinese people, the posters contradict the regime’s propaganda narratives. The campaign also sends a message to the Chinese government: While it could quickly arrest individuals participating in political demonstrations within its border, the government authorities have no ways to stop the subsequent protests that will take place in other parts of the world (not that this will stop them from trying, as seen in the violent attack on protesters outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester).
Facing threats from the Chinese government’s massive surveillance efforts and the regime’s attempts to intimidate and influence its overseas diaspora around the world, individuals can best protect their identities and ensure their safety by engaging in anonymous and leaderless social media campaigns. However, those actions also have their limitations. Despite having a sizable level of engagement and participation, social media-based political campaigns have limited influence on Chinese government officials and the Chinese top leadership team.
Despite imposing the zero-COVID strategy, overseeing a slowing economy, and lacking clear responses on key domestic social issues such as combatting human trafficking and violence against women, Xi secured a third term at the just-concluded 20th Party Congress. Not only that, but officials loyal to Xi’s leadership received critical top-level roles after the Party Congress, with little resistance within the country.
Days after the Poster Campaign protests, some individuals started to take the initiative to share tips on organizing in-person rallies and events in major cities around the world. However, it will take further actions to have concrete impacts against the Chinese regime. In addition to organizing protests and demonstrations, activities such as lobbying and direct political participation should also be considered and prioritized to push for democracy and freedom in China.