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ESSAY: The times they are a-changing…
Peng Lifa, the man with the banner on the bridge, is the hero China needs.
On April 25 of this year, a big rally held in adulation of Xi Jinping was orchestrated near Sitong Bridge at Renmin University. Students patiently lined up in advance.
Thousands and thousands of students were there to greet him, clean-scrubbed, pliant and enthused patriotic youth. Some were voluntarily imbued with excitement, others cowed into going along, perhaps by peer pressure or fears attendant to non-conformance. The assembled masses of students waited patiently by the roadside for Xi’s motorcade to whoosh by.
The motorcade turned into Renmin University. The youthful crowd waved, applauded and cheered madly as the famous man went by.
A pale solitary hand could be seen protruding from the special vehicle carrying the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party.
His eminence waved back!
This provoked another round of excitement from the youthful crowd, as if on cue. CCTV evening news of April 26 devoted the top ten minutes of its flagship half-hour news program Xinwenlianbo to the spectacle of Xi being drowned with applause as he offered the youth of China a “brush with greatness.”
Less than half a year later, a courageous call for Xi Jinping to step down erupted from the same locale, only there were no big TV cameras and there was no orchestrated audience applause. Just one peaceful protester with hand-painted banners.
“Get rid of tyrant and national traitor Xi Jinping!”
It was a one-man show. One man up on his lonely parapet going against all odds, a brilliant, crazy and creative act of courage. A cry for China.
On October 13, 2022 the lone protester draped a long cloth banner from a bridge on Third Ring Road by the intersection next to Renmin University.
His hand-painted message called for change in straightforward terms:
We want food, not Covid tests. We want reform, not Cultural Revolution. We want freedom, not lock down. We want votes, not a leader. We want dignity, not lies. We are citizens, not slaves.
Dressed in a reflective jacket similar to that used by construction workers, a lone man secured a long cloth banner to the railing of the heavily trafficked overpass on Third Ring Road. He started a small fire that emitted a considerable amount of smoke, sufficient to bring attention to both the protester and the poster. Some witnesses reported hearing a taped message playing as well
The fire was quickly extinguished, the banner torn down and the lone activist, who apparently made no effort to leave the scene, was arrested.
The name of the man on the bridge is Peng Lifa. He is a 48-year old scientist employed in a computer services company in Beijing. An online source suggests his hometown is rural Tailai Country in Heilongjiang Province. Not well-known prior to this surprising event, he seems to be the ultimate lone wolf with no apparent following. His breathtakingly heroic stand for the ideals he believes in appears to have been a singular act of defiance.
A rough profile put together from the scant information available about him online, much of which has been deleted, points to an ordinary citizen and doting father unhappy with coercive Covid measures, and the politics of dictatorship. He professes a love of physics.
He’s not a known physicist, but in his own small way, Peng may have taken inspiration from truly accomplished physicists who took a firm stand on the political dictates of their day. It’s in the tradition of Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, and closer to home, Fang Lizhi, a Chinese astrophysicist who jeopardized his career to address injustice in China.
Fang Lizhi held “democracy salons” in Beijing in early 1989 which gave impetus and direction to the outbreak of protest. The huge protest marches that began in April and continued through May passed the very intersection where Peng Lifa made his stand.
The company Stone (Sitong) Computer, also associated with the historic protests for lending financial and logistical support, was also based in Haidian District and shares its name with Sitong Bridge. Its founder, Wan Runnan, went into exile shortly afterwards.
According to the handful posts that remain online on Twitter and ResearchGate, Peng Lifa wrote about topics such as "Unidirectional Propulsion of Alternating Charges on Metal Surfaces by Electromagnetic Wave Electric Field."
Though he was gainfully employed in the technical section of a computer services company, it seems likely physics was more avocation than the focus of his day job. Among his sparse posts are ruminations on particle physics and the macro world, “laws of nature to which even God must be obedient,” the condition of low entropy and the observation that “energy is information, information is energy.”
Taken together, Peng’s scant writings online make clear his opposition to dictatorship. He posted numerous clips of coercive Covid prevention measures.
A scientist, he decried the superstitious and irrational behavior of authorities.
It’s not surprising that a data-driven, science-oriented person such as a physicist should find the politics-driven public health mandates affixed to the ego and image of the paramount leader to be absurd.
On October 3, 2022, Peng was still posting cat pictures on Twitter. On October 13, he reached a breaking point. What happened in that ten day interim?
His provocative banner speaks to a concerned individual who couldn’t take it anymore.
Peng’s two Twitter accounts, safely beyond the reach of PRC authorities to terminate, were opened in April and May respectively and each consist of only a few posts. One account uses the name Peng Zaizhou, the other has the handle peng.phy, a nod to his interest in physics. The latter includes a few physics-related posts from ResearchGate.com but also political statements. The picture below of a family on a rafting holiday is from his “physics” Twitter account. The reflective orange life vest he is seen wearing in the boat is possibly the “construction worker’s vest” he was seen wearing when arrested.
Peng’s Douyin account (some posts were salvaged after deletion) has heartwarming clips of family life. The star of the show is his daughter in a variety of settings; playing in the snow, posing by spring blossoms, doing homework, reciting poetry. In almost every scene, she is carrying a book or notebook.
It also contains viral clips that illustrated the Zero-Covid madness enforced by guards in white hazmat suits.
Peng didn’t do much politicking online but what little he did was artfully squirreled away in a mix of media jurisdictions, perhaps a strategy to thwart total censorship.
On a science-related website he posted a political call to protest, urging fellow citizens to seek reform, voting rights, rational policies, and to go on strike in opposition to dictatorship.
The words on his banner, perhaps the most succinct expression of his discontent, have traveled across China and around the world. You can lock up the man but you can’t lock up his ideas.