China’s Protest Prophet – The New York Times

When a man hung two protest banners on a highway crossover in central Beijing in mid-October, it was clear he had pulled off a shockingly brave act in Xi Jinping’s China. But most expected it to be forgotten once the censors scrubbed the internet in China of any explicit mentions of his action.

Yet less than two months later, his slogans have become rallying cries in cities and campuses across China and the world as the Chinese public has protested the government’s harsh Covid restrictions and deprivation of their rights.

“We want food, not Covid tests,” protesters chanted, reciting the banners’ slogans. “We want reform, not Cultural Revolution. We want freedom, not lockdowns. We want votes, not a ruler. We want dignity, not lies. We are citizens, not slaves.” In Shanghai, some even shouted the banners’ most radical demand: “Remove the despotic traitor Xi Jinping!”

Now the man who posted the banners, Peng Lifa, is called “the man who lighted the spark in darkness,” “the lone warrior” and the “Bridge Man,” a reference to the “Tank Man” who stood in front of a line of tanks in 1989 during Beijing’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Peng is widely considered the person who inspired many people to participate in the recent protests, the biggest in China since then.

We know little about Peng. The authorities took him from the bridge and into custody, and his whereabouts remains unknown. The Chinese government never acknowledged him. He has simply disappeared from the public view.

“He’s a prophet-like figure,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a human rights lawyer based in Beijing who was disbarred because of his own advocacy.

“The lone warrior,” a Twitter account with the handle @zengamy wrote to Peng, “no matter where you are, please take a look at this: your voice has spread all over our country, our own China.”

Today, I will explain how with one simple, yet brave act, Peng shaped the biggest protests in China in a generation.

In videos and images of the banners being hung, a person in an orange top and a yellow hard hat is seen fastening them to the side of the bridge while a column of smoke rises nearby, probably an attempt to draw the attention of pedestrians and drivers passing the busy intersection. A loudspeaker repeats the slogans that urged the public to fight for food, freedom, the right to vote and to remove Xi.

In two Twitter accounts believed to be owned by Peng, he claims to be a physics and philosophy enthusiast. Based on business registration information, he appears to be a shareholder in a small tech company in Beijing. In a 23-page manifesto that he posted on an academic website hours before his action, he wrote that China should be free and democratic. He urged the Chinese public to try to stop Xi from securing a norm-breaking third term as China’s top leader, which Xi did a few days later at a highly choreographed party congress.

Peng is believed to be 48 and was born in Heilongjiang Province, which borders Russia to the north.

The world knows little about what will happen to him. Xi’s critics have been punished severely. Ren Zhiqiang, a retired real estate mogul, wrote an essay critical of the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020. He called Xi a “clown.” Now Ren is serving an 18-year sentence. Xu Zhiyong, a prominent activist, wrote an open letter in 2020 calling on Xi to step down. He was arrested, then tried in secret for subversion in June. The court’s verdict remains unknown.

Peng went a step further by staging a political protest on the street, an extremely rare and risky act in China.

Many protesters I interviewed said that Peng had inspired them. “He showed us that you could say these things even in China,” Xia, a college graduate, said of his political slogans. She was detained for 24 hours after participating in a protest in Shanghai in late November. She wanted to be identified only by her family name out of safety concerns.

Chinese pro-democracy activists running the Instagram account Citizens Daily CN said they took the risks to organize protests around the world because they wanted to continue what Peng started.

His demands cover a variety of issues: daily needs, opposition to the “zero Covid” policy and opposition to dictatorship, a representative of the group said. “They quickly became consensus among Chinese dissidents and protesters.”

Related: China announced today it would ease Covid restrictions, a victory for protesters.

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