Live updates: China kicks off 20th Communist Party Congress as Xi Jinping prepares to expand his power

Online censorship in China has accelerated after a rare protest took place on a busy overpass in Beijing that openly criticized the uncompromising zero Covid policy and authoritarian rule of Xi Jinping, stoking pent-up tensions among the Chinese public.

Photos circulated on Twitter on Thursday showing two protest banners strewn across Sitong Bridge in Beijing’s Haidian district in broad daylight, with plumes of smoke billowing from the bridge.

“Say no to the Covid test, yes to the food. No to confinement, yes to freedom. No to lies, yes to dignity. No to cultural revolution, yes to reform. No to the great leader, yes to the vote. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen,” one banner read.

“Go on strike, depose dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping,” reads the other.

When CNN arrived at the Sitong Bridge around 3.30pm on Thursday, no protesters or banners could be seen – as if nothing had happened.

A bit of context: Public protests against top leaders are extremely rare in China, with dissenters facing imprisonment or worse.

Thursday’s display of discontent was even starker ahead of important political meetings, when authorities turn Beijing into a fortress to maintain security and stability.

Censorship: Chinese social media users have spoken out to express their support and admiration for the brazen challenge. Some shared Chinese pop hit ‘Lonely Warrior’ in a veiled reference to the protester, whom some called a ‘hero’, while others vowed never to forget him, posting under the hashtag: ‘I have seen”.

Many posts have been deleted and accounts suspended indefinitely after commenting on – or alluding to – the protest on Chinese social media such as Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, and WeChat, the super app.

The keywords were immediately excluded from search results on apps, such as “Sitong Bridge” and “Haidian” – the site of the protest. Terms like “Beijing”, “warrior”, “brave man” and even “courage” have also been restricted.

Lock, test, repeat: China’s zero Covid strategy means even a single infection can trigger a citywide lockdown, ordering people to stay at home or be transported to a quarantine center for isolation.

The Chinese government’s draconian zero Covid policy has fueled growing public frustration as unpredictable rounds of lockdowns and mass testing have upended daily life and wreaked havoc on the economy.

To monitor : Hopes that China could ease pandemic restrictions after the Party Congress were all but dashed as the Communist Party maintained its hardline approach.

In the week leading up to the important meeting, the state’s mouthpiece People’s Daily published three comments reiterating that China will not let its guard down.

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