China has launched the 20th Congress of the Communist Party

Protest banners hung from the Sitong Bridge in Beijing on October 13.

China’s online censorship came under fire after a rare protest on a busy pedestrian crossing in Beijing openly criticized Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy and authoritarian rule, sparking tensions among the Chinese public.

Photos shared on Twitter on Thursday showed two protest banners thrown over the 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 the lockdown, yes to freedom. No to lies, yes to dignity. No to the cultural revolution, yes to reform. No to the great leader, yes to vote. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen”, read a banner.

“Strike, remove the dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping,” says the other.

When CNN arrived at the Sitong Bridge around 3:30pm on Thursday, there were no protesters or banners in sight, as if nothing had happened.

Some contexts: Public protest against the supreme leader is extremely rare in China, with dissidents being jailed or worse.

Thursday’s display of discontent was even more striking ahead of key political meetings, when the authorities turned Beijing into a stronghold to maintain security and stability.

Censorship: Chinese social media users spoke out to express their support and fear for the daring defiance. Some shared the Chinese pop hit “Lonely Warrior” in a veiled reference to the protester, who some called a “hero,” while others vowed not to forget, posting under the hashtag: “I saw it.”

Many posts were removed and accounts suspended indefinitely on Chinese social networks such as Weibo, the Twitter-like platform, and WeChat, the super app, after comments or references to the protest were made.

Keywords such as “Sitong Bridge” and “Haidian” – the site of the protest – were immediately limited in search results on the apps. Terms such as “Beijing”, “warrior”, “brave man” and even “courage” were restricted.

Lock, test, repeat: China’s zero-Covid strategy means that even one infection can trigger a city-wide 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 public frustration as unpredictable cycles of lockdowns and mass testing turn everyday life upside down and wreak havoc on the economy.

What to see: China is expected to ease pandemic restrictions after the Party Congress, while the Communist Party has maintained its tough approach.

In the week before the important meeting, the state-run People’s Daily published three commentaries reiterating that China will not let its guard down.