A rare protest in Beijing calls for change ahead of a key Communist Party meeting

Photos and videos online showed protest banners on a busy overpass in Beijing on Thursday calling for elections and the ouster of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, just days before the ruling Communist Party is expected to cement Xi’s power by handing him a norm-breaking third term as party chief.

It is unclear who was behind the bold demonstration in northwestern Beijing, a stone’s throw from some of the country’s top universities, or how widely the images circulated before censors scrubbed them from Chinese social media.

One of the protest banners read: “Food not Covid tests. Reform not Cultural Revolution. Freedom not lockdown. Votes not leaders. Dignity not lies. Citizens not slaves.”

Another called on students and workers to go on strike and to depose the “traitorous dictator” Xi, who has centralized power and ruled China with a heavy hand.

Public protests over local issues, like land disputes or court rulings, are regular occurrences in China. Political protests are far less common, and it is exceedingly rare to see overt mentions of elections and freedom, or scorn aimed directly at top leaders.

Images online showed smoke billowing from something burning on the overpass near the protest banners.

A police officer reached by phone told NPR he was aware of the banner protest but gave no further comment. Bloomberg news said there was a heavy police presence on the bridge in the wake of the incident.

The demonstration comes at a highly sensitive time in China with heightened security in Beijing, just three days before the start of a twice-a-decade Communist Party congress.

Next week, party representatives are expected to hand Xi a third five-year term as party chief.

Xi has ruled China for a decade already, eliminating his political rivals, centralizing power and quashing dissent and civil society.

While many in China support his strongman approach, particularly in the face of perceived hostility from the United States, others fret privately about the increasingly authoritarian direction in which Xi has been leading the country.

In recent months, there has been substantial grumbling about China’s “dynamic zero COVID” policy, which has kept China largely sealed off from the rest of the world, subjected the populace to heightened digital surveillance and sudden lockdowns, and ravaged the economy.

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