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Professor Li spoke to the world about China’s protests via Twitter


Li Ying in his Milan apartment on December 6.
Li Ying in his Milan apartment on December 6. (Alberto Bernasconi for The Washington Post)

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Every few seconds, Li Ying receives a message on Twitter. University students demand transparency from school administrators; Fuzhou workers are sleep in tents in an unheated college dining hall despite orders to lift campus closures; the people of Xi’an are queuing at midnight to take PCR tests to be able to go to work the next day, even if the coronavirus testing requirements would have been lifted.

None of these events will be reported by Chinese media or appear on social media before being swept away by censors. Li, a 30-year-old painter from Anhui province now living in Milan, sees it as his responsibility to spread this information around the world.

“I post the news and then go back to my inbox,” said Li, who often spends more than 10 hours a day on Twitter, checking the news sent to him and posting and updating his posts. It draws a grim comparison to the apocalyptic film “Snowpiercer,” where enslaved children keep myopic a train carrying the remnants of humanity moving.

“That’s how I am. I just keep posting what people say, non-stop. I don’t know anything else going on,” he said.

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In the past two weeks, his work has seemed particularly vital as protests not seen in decades have swept through his homeland, with calls to end onerous covid controls turning into political demands for change. As censors on Chinese social media platforms deleted the images and domestic media made no mention of the unrest, Li Twitter account became the main clearinghouse for information on the protests.

Li’s emergence reflects the power the internet still has to circumvent censorship, even in one of the most controlled media environments in the world.

It also points out the dangers. Li, who uses an online pseudonym – Teacher Li – decided to publicize her real name and photos for this article, in an effort to protect herself from reprisals from Chinese authorities who began intimidating her family.

Li regards his role as a citizen journalist as an accident of history. After moving to Italy in 2015 to study fine art, he began posting short comedy sketches on the Weibo microblog about love and life. People started sending him their own stories, asking him to post them and get feedback from other users.

Eventually, these stories began to address social issues like the trafficking of women in rural areas, and he gained more followers and more submissions. Li’s Weibo account was closed 52 times, but each time he opened a new one, he regained his audience.

“People got used to telling me things,” he said, describing his role as similar to a “hole in a tree” where people shout their secrets. Also, it was that people didn’t trust the justice system. “They don’t believe the law is working, so they have to seek help online, for people to help publicize their case to get attention.”

Unable to open more accounts, he shifted his efforts to Twitter last spring. A few months later, in November, he began tweeting about protests against covid controls at Foxconn’s factory in Zhengzhou, where half of the world’s supply of iPhones is produced. Soon he was receiving a flood of submissions from Chinese netizens following the protests or from Foxconn workers themselves.

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Li was shocked to find so many Chinese users on Twitter, which is blocked in China and only accessible through illegal virtual private networks, or VPNs. Ironically, a years-long campaign to purge pornographic content from the Chinese internet popularized the platform for such content among Chinese users.

Later that month, news of a deadly fire in Urumqi sparked mass protests against the government’s relentless “zero covid” restrictions, which were blamed on deaths in the blaze as well as several other incidents. . As Li posted about the protests, his Twitter followers grew to more than 800,000, from around 190,000, in just a few days.

On the night of November 27, as protests spread to dozens of cities, he received 20 to 30 messages per second. He posted photos of students silently waving pieces of blank white paper – earning the protests the title ‘the white paper revolution’ – and stunning videos of residents shouting for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to step down. and that freedom of speech and of the press be implemented. . His updates were followed so closely that he let his followers know when he was taking a break to sleep or get food for his cats.

“It was like a snowball. It builds on itself. People realize they can’t get this information out in other ways,” he said. “Even if you try to shut me up, the fact that I can find all these subscribers shows the power of the internet.”

Today, the number of submissions Li receives has dropped slightly as the protests have died down. Shortly after the protests, police began arresting and summoning protesters, warning them to stop. Significantly, however, officials announced new steps on Wednesday to ease zero-covid restrictions.

Li’s efforts have not escaped official notice. Its social media accounts in China, including its banking platform, started showing suspicious activity such as login attempts. The police called and visited his parents in Anhui, urging them to use their influence and have him arrested. At one point, his parents were getting calls from the police every time he tweeted. Some of his personal information has been leaked online.

The past few weeks have exhausted Li, and he fears that he will soon find himself stateless. His Chinese passport will expire in six months, but he is afraid to go to the Chinese Embassy in Italy or return home to renew it. “Of course I dare not go there,” he said, referring to Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in 2018 on his way to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.

Li feels like he’s been pushed into a role he didn’t seek. In recent days he has been accused of not being a lonely blogger and having a professional team behind him. (In response, he posted a photo revealing his “team” — his two cats.)

Before the protests, Li believed there was no chance of democracy taking root in China and had little hope in the bravery of Chinese citizens to stand up against the state.

“The white paper revolution has made people realize that resistance works, that they can fight for their demands. I believe it sowed the seed of that civic consciousness,” he said.

Sometimes the submissions Li receives are from people who just want to share their thoughts — an experience he describes as weird but wonderful. One person told Li he reminded them of their youth in China 30 years ago, when pro-democracy protests in 1989 spread across the country before ending in brutal repression and massacre around Tiananmen Square.

“What worries me more than my own safety is the safety of my account, because this account means a lot to Chinese people around the world,” he said. He hopes to see this work of giving voice to people inside the Great Firewall taken up by others.

“All I can do is keep going. I don’t think I should be the only one doing this, but in the end, I’m the one doing this. I don’t know what will happen next, but now that we have reached this point, we can only see where it goes.



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