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About those Chinese-language posters on campus

Chinese Trojans have put up signs at USC calling for an end to their government’s extremely strict Covid policy and repressive actions.

Three posters with Chinese writing on a brick wall

Strident posters opposing China’s leader Xi Jinping have appeared around USC since late October. From lamp posts at the intersection of South Hoover and West Jefferson, to bulletin boards at the Law School, to the glass doors of the USC Bookstore, the posters are part of a larger political protest by students at universities around the world.

This movement grew out of an incident in China in which an unidentified man in Beijing hung two banners from Sitong Bridge in central Beijing on Oct. 13 to denounce China’s “zero-Covid” policy, which required lockdowns and mass testing to get one area down to zero infections. Towns and cities shut down overnight, many desperate people couldn’t get food or access to hospitals and pleaded for help on social media, and a bus carrying people to quarantine crashed, killing 27 people.

The posters at USC were inspired by the original banners that had phrases like, “Elections Not Dictatorship; Citizens Not Slaves.” They argue that the regime is authoritarian and call for democratic elections. They also demand the resignation of Xi, who was recently re-elected by the seven-member Central Committee of the Chinese Committee Party to a third five-year term.

A video posted online shows the man who posted the original banners being detained by authorities moments later. Some journalists focusing on China believe that a Twitter account under the pseudonym “Peng Zaizhou” belongs to the man. The account was deactivated following his arrest.

China’s online censors attempted to remove any digital trace of his act of public dissent, including discussion groups and social media accounts that spread word of his exploits.

Young Chinese people living abroad still learned of this protest and spread the word by posting on social media sites that Chinese authorities cannot censor as well as putting up similar posters in other parts of the world, including here at USC.

A poster on a large globe

One USC student who was born and raised in Beijing said in an interview that, “We can’t let this hero bleed for nothing.”

The student, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of persecution, has for the past month been posting anti-Xi posters around campus. “I don’t know if my parents in China will be affected negatively,” she said. “I might even get detained.”

“No media is free from government interference, but I think the interference level in China is no longer acceptable.… Protesting in China is a very courageous and committed action.”

Another Chinese-born Trojan who attended high school in the United States, agreed. “It’s more vital that we, the Chinese students studying abroad, do something because we live in a more liberal environment,” she said. Explaining that she placed dozens of posters around campus on one recent night, she added, “If we don’t speak out, should we just expect people in China to sacrifice themselves? We take a smaller risk, so we need to do more.”

Prior to agreeing to an interview, both Trojans said they largely remained quiet about their silent protest on campus, only telling their closest friends.

Han Wang is a Chinese graduate student at USC who has been involved in anti-Chinese Communist Party activities for the past two years despite possible consequences back home.

Wang spent several hours marching around campus one late-October afternoon with a large sign showing an obese and naked Xi Jinping along with the words: Emperor’s new clothes.

Wang said that people smiled at him during his personal protest, and one Chinese girl even took a photo of him and told him it was cool. The response eased his fears of being attacked by extreme Chinese nationalists who are known as “xiao fen hong” or little pink.

Wang says that the poster movement on campus is not a coordinated protest; it is individuals each deciding to take action. “I hope that in the future, the connections between protestors will strengthen,” he said.

“There were actually [a] few Chinese people who I have encountered that strongly support the Communist Party,” Wang said. “Most Chinese people prefer to remain silent because it is the safest action to take, even if they disagree with the government.”

Posters with Chinese writing on a lamppost

Wang said he hoped that political organizations would help to unite the disconnected protestors. But other students were leery of such an idea.

One USC student who wore a wig and a cap when putting up posters alone at night said, “I’ve been so careful because I don’t want my parents living in China to get in trouble.”

The student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that she isn’t only concerned about Chinese Communist Party sympathizers. She noted that some organizations that oppose the Chinese government here are made up primarily of men. She said that there are times when she has felt uncomfortable due to misogyny among those group’s male members. “It just doesn’t seem like a safe space for women,” she said.

The Chinese student who attended high school in the U.S said that, like many of people with similar positions, she doesn’t like the idea of collectivizing the protests, and she’s afraid of being reported by tools of the Chinese government in the organization.

She noted that a loved one in China expressed concern when she put up the anti-Xi posters at USC “because she thought I wouldn’t be able to return to China.”

As for Wang, Chinese police have harassed his parents twice in recent years. He said that police went to their home and demanded that they sign a statement pledging to prevent their son from engaging in anti Communist Party activities again. That hasn’t stopped him.

Several people interviewed said that Instagram accounts like Northern Square and Citizens Daily CN, which publish photos of anti-Xi messages posted in public, are reassuring to them because they show that there are like-minded people in the world.

The student from Beijing tried to explain why making progress is so difficult. “It’s hard for the western world to understand… how it feels to fight under a regime like this.”

Most interviewees say that putting up posters isn’t enough, but acknowledge that they don’t see a clear solution to the problems they describe back home.

Wang said, “We need to speak up to form a foundation so that more people can have the courage to make a change.”