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The Poster Movement: A lonely protest in Beijing echoed by politically awakening Chinese students overseas

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NOVEMBER 17, 2022

On Oct. 13, a protester strung pro-democracy banners on Sitong Bridge, a highway overpass in Beijing, protesting the inhumane zero-COVID-19 social control policy in China. This occurred right before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, in which the protester demanded freedom, dignity and true democracy. Another banner called to “take down dictator Xi Jinping,” a statement that garnered public attention like no other. 

However, even disguised as a construction worker, the protester was spotted and arrested by police. Ever since, this demonstration has been strictly censored on Chinese media and the internet. Ironically, even words related to the event, such as “bridge” and “brave man,” were also banned from being used. Vague posts implying acknowledgement of the protest on social media led to the suspension of some accounts. 

Meanwhile, Xi secured an unprecedented third term during the National Congress of the CCP. The party’s amended constitution demands to safeguard Xi’s “core” position, while tragedies because of the ruthless zero-COVID policy continue to occur. 

Open political protests against the party, the leader or elections are rare in China. People in China don’t have the luxury of exercising freedom of speech. With tight, strict surveillance from the Chinese government, anyone openly showing dissent is likely to “be invited for tea” with the police, a euphemism for an individual potentially receiving police questioning or jail time. Moreover, as the government continues to invest in high-tech penetrating surveillance in the streets and online, there is no room for organizing protests in China without swift repercussions. 

These circumstances further reflect the tremendous courage of the Sitong Bridge protester. And this time, this brave action is echoed by numerous Chinese students studying overseas, including those at UC Berkeley. Launching the Poster Movement and hanging banners and posters around campus and in cities are just some examples of how Chinese students are showing their support an ocean away. 

 Still, political rebellion is new for many Chinese students overseas. Growing up in China, we lived in an environment where news and textbooks boasted the great achievements of our country. From a young age, some of us have been taught to censor public dissent and to be modest and respectful to authorities. 

Now, while studying at UC Berkeley, certain instances show that if we openly express disagreement, our parents and relatives in China could be targeted by police. We may even experience similar treatment when we go back to our home country in the future. Consequently, we know many of the Chinese students overseas, including us, generally remain apolitical or are afraid of sharing their own thoughts. 

Despite the risks, we know many Chinese students at UC Berkeley, including us, still join the Poster Movement anonymously, discreetly, yet creatively. Instead of running a street demonstration, we pursue a decentralized way. We refrain from gathering publicly, so we connect through secure messaging apps, design posters using online shared resources and put up the posters on campus at night. We then share the pictures of the posted flyers online anonymously to spread awareness about the movement.

This was what was seen on campus: protest banners hanging on the handrail of the Martin Luther King Jr. Building, at the entrance of the Dwinelle Hall and in front of the Free Speech Movement Cafe. On other college campuses around the world, students are demanding democracy and free speech in China as well. Slogans from the Sitong Bridge protest were cited at these campuses, as well as other appeals, including ending gender-based violence and terminating the human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. 

When we made our way back to the first poster we put up on campus, we surprisingly saw many more just 15 minutes later. It was then we realized there were other people we didn’t even know fighting the same fight as us. Seeing so many posters posted online from all over the world, we are greatly touched by this sense of togetherness — we are not alone. More importantly, we feel hope.

The Poster Movement opens a new chapter for many of us. The Sitong Bridge protest inspired a political awakening, but there is also courage and a sense of obligation to take actions influenced by our peers and others globally. This movement has grown to a scale we did not anticipate, but one that we are pleased and excited about nevertheless.

Today, we are thrilled to see so many Chinese students at UC Berkeley speak up, screaming for freedom. Every one of us saying no to the dictatorship is empowering ourselves and even more people to do so. 

Although we are new to the game, we are determined, fast learners — we aim for a free China. We hope other students at UC Berkeley understand the risks we face and the reason behind our anonymous protest today. We need your support by sharing and discussing news reports, posters you saw or even this article with your friends. In the end, we want to show solidarity with other oppressed people in the world and send a strong message: We the people demand freedom.

This op-ed was written by a few anonymous Chinese students at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

NOVEMBER 17, 2022