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Rare protest criticizes China's president days before Communist Party congress

One banner called Xi Jinping a “dictator and traitor of the country” and demanded his removal.

A rare protest calling for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s overthrow was staged in the country’s capital Thursday, days before the start of the Communist Party congress, which is expected to cement his rule for an unprecedented third term. 

As plumes of black smoke rose from the Sitong Bridge in Beijing’s northwest, white banners hung off the flyover with red writing criticizing Xi and his government’s strict “zero Covid” policy, pictures and videos posted to Twitter and verified by NBC News showed.

One banner called Xi a “dictator and traitor of the country” and demanded his removal. It also called for strikes.

Smoke rises from the Sitong bridge in Beijing during anti-government protests on Oct. 13, 2022.
Smoke rises from the Sitong bridge in Beijing during anti-government protests on Oct. 13, 2022.

A second said, “No more PCR tests, we want to eat; No more lockdowns, we want freedom,” alluding to the policy that Chinese officials say has kept coronavirus cases and deaths far lower than in other countries and is necessary to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed.

Critics say lockdowns, which have affected tens of millions of people, have harmed the world’s second-largest economy and made travel uncertain. Small protests and confrontations with authorities have taken place in the past, in several cities where lockdowns have been enforced. 

“No more leaders, we want votes; No more lies, we want dignity,” were among other demands on that banner.

“Don’t be slaves, be citizens,” a third said.

Image:
Scorched pavement is seen on a highway overpass where social media videos earlier appeared to show smoke and protest banners in Beijing on Thursday. Dake Kang / AP

Separate video footage posted to Twitter and verified by NBC News showed firefighters arriving at the scene where they removed the banners and extinguished what appeared to be burning boxes. 

District authorities in Haidian, where the Sitong Bridge is, said they were not aware of the incident when called by NBC News.  

Dozens of police milled about the area, entering stores and at times stopping and questioning pedestrians, according to The Associated Press.

It was unclear who might have hung the banners or when they were placed, but public dissent is rare in China, where rights groups have in recent years warned about the arbitrary detention of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists.

Posts containing the hashtags Beijing or Haidian were quickly blocked on Weibo, China's popular microblogging site similar to Twitter.

Others told the AP that their Twitter accounts had been temporarily disabled on another major Chinese platform, WeChat, after they shared photos of the incident. A song named “Sitong Bridge,” the name of the section of elevated roadway where the incident reportedly happened, was removed from online music platforms.

Security across Beijing is extremely tight ahead of the ruling Communist Party’s five-yearly congress, which is set to open Sunday.

Taking place mostly behind closed doors at the Great Hall of the People on the western side of Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, it typically lasts about a week. 

Xi, who came to power in 2012, is expected to receive a third five-year term as party leader at the end of the congress, consolidating his place as the country’s most powerful leader in decades.