Beijing was on high alert on Friday against any disruption to a landmark Chinese Communist Party meeting that begins on Sunday, and where Xi is expected to secure a historic third term as president.
Armies of volunteers have been deployed in every neighbourhood in Beijing to report anything out of the ordinary, and parcels to subway commuters have been subjected to additional security checks.
But video footage and images shared on social media on Thursday appeared to show a defiant protest which involved the draping of two hand-painted banners with slogans criticising the Communist Party’s policies on the side of a bridge in Beijing.
“No COVID tests, I want to make a living. No cultural revolution, I want reforms. No lockdowns, I want freedom. No leaders, I want to vote. No lies, I want dignity. I won’t be a slave, I’ll be a citizen,” one banner read.
The other banner called on citizens to go on strike and remove “the traitorous dictator Xi Jinping”.
Images on Twitter, which is blocked in China, showed smoke spiralling up from a fire on the bridge.
It was not clear who might have hung the banners or when they were placed.
“Lots of people saw what happened,” said a man working near Thursday’s protest site.
The protest banners were taken down soon after they were unfurled, the man told the AFP news agency, asking to not be identified for fear of trouble from authorities.
Public protests are extremely rare in the Chinese capital, and those who defy Beijing’s strict security apparatus face serious punishment.
By Friday morning, Chinese social media censors had blocked posts and keywords related to the protest, including Sitong Bridge, the overpass where the slogans appeared to have been displayed.
Search results for the keyword “Beijing” on the popular Weibo platform were restricted to just verified accounts on Friday instead of the usual torrent of regular users’ posts about the capital.
Even phrases that referred obliquely to the protest, including the hashtag “I saw it”, returned no results by Friday afternoon.
According to @CDTChinese, keywords like "Sitong Bridge," "Beijing banner," and "Haidian" were immediately censored on Chinese social media following the protest. That pushed netizens to use more veiled words like "warrior," "courage," "safety" to express their support.
— William Yang (@WilliamYang120) October 14, 2022
“I saw it” was one of the last hashtags with which Weibo users discussed the incident in veiled references early on Friday, with one user posting: “I saw it, I will not forget it.”
In Hong Kong, where the semi-autonomous city’s once-outspoken media used to widely cover demonstrations in the mainland, no leading newspapers reported Thursday’s protest.
Digital news outlet HK01 ran a brief report on Thursday afternoon, but the article was subsequently taken down.
Hong Kong media have been brought to heel by Beijing, and a recent survey by the city’s media industry body showed press freedom hitting a record low.