China’s censorship machine has gone into overdrive after a man hung two banners on a highway overpass in Beijing on Thursday denouncing Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his authoritarian rule.
“Depose the traitorous dictator Xi Jinping,” read the words in red on one banner, according to photos and footage that circulated online.
“We don’t want nucleic acid tests, we want food. We want freedom, not lockdowns. We want reforms, not Cultural Revolution,” the other read. “We want votes, not leaders. We want dignity, not lies. We are citizens, not slaves.”
Such brazen criticism of the Chinese government is unimaginable on any regular day as the country imposes harsh punishments on dissenters. But it has come at a particularly sensitive time—Beijing is about to hold a key political meeting that’s expected to hand Xi an unprecedented third term.
The rare display of defiance lasted just minutes before the man was arrested by dozens of police officers, according to one video. Beijing police have not said what happened to the man. A woman who picked up the phone at a police station near the overpass told VICE World News she didn’t know about the protest and declined to comment on the incident.
Now the country’s censorship machine is erasing all evidence that it has ever happened.
Social media platforms deleted all posts containing keywords such as the name of the bridge, Sitong, and its district, Haidian. The list of sensitive keywords has since widened to include “Beijing,” “brave,” “bridge,” and “pay homage,” said Eric Liu, a former content moderator at Weibo and now an analyst at the U.S.-based outlet China Digital Times.
“The censorship apparatus rarely deletes posts based on such abstract terms. But it’s obvious they would rather go into overkill and suppress this incident at all costs,” Liu told VICE World News.
A search for Beijing on Weibo yields only results from verified corporate or government-affiliated accounts, most of which are posts celebrating the upcoming party congress.
Apple Music took down a song released in 2011, titled “Sitong Bridge.” The name of a man, who was found to have posted the same slogans on Twitter in recent days and thus suspected to be the protester, was also censored.
Not only are images or footage of the incident being scrubbed from the internet, those who shared it on the social media platform WeChat had had their accounts permanently suspended, Liu added.
The company has cast such a wide net that thousands were ensnared and flocked to Weibo to complain about the unreasonable punishment. By Friday morning, censors had closed in on the complaints themselves. A relevant hashtag was deleted. A link to the page of the complaints now leads to an error message.
This did not stop some Chinese social media users from making sly references to the protest, even if their words of support, like the act itself, are short-lived. “Before this disappears, I’d like to say, may the brave man be safe,” a user wrote in a now-deleted post.