The first posters appeared on a bulletin board at University of California, San Diego on March 1.
Two days later, they popped up at Columbia University and New York University. Now they’ve spread to nine more colleges across the United States, Canada, Australia, and United Kingdom.
The twin posters — one in Chinese, one in English — read, “Not my president,” the words superimposed over a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The signs are part of a small but growing campaign among Chinese university students abroad to express their opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s proposal, announced last week, to scrap presidential term limits, paving the way for Xi to stay in power indefinitely.
“The single most important driving force behind China’s growth in the past 30 years has been the check on the party leader’s power on the institutional level,” the organizers, told Foreign Policy in a message, after being contacted initially through a Twitter account associated with the campaign.
The organizers, who say they come from mainland China but live in Western countries, requested anonymity, citing concerns about retaliation from the Chinese government.
“It’s definitely not our wish that an unelected strongman become a de facto lifetime dictator,” they wrote in a message.
It’s a rare show of direct resistance. Even far away from home, Chinese students are reluctant to criticize their government publicly, fearing that their words will make it back to party officials in China, dampening their job prospects back home or even risking their safety.
Since he assumed office in late 2012, Xi has consolidated power through sweeping anti-corruption campaigns that have felled rivals, establishing himself as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Rumors have swirled for more than a year that Xi might attempt to stay in power longer than the two five-year terms that recent Chinese presidents have served. In that way, last week’s proposal, virtually guaranteed to pass into law later this month, wasn’t a surprise.
Even so, many Chinese took the move as a betrayal that harkens back to Mao’s legacy. The late party secretary, who led China from 1949 to 1976, crushed opposition and vilified criticism to such an extent that few dared speak out when he adopted catastrophic economic and social policies that thrust the country into decades of chaos, famine, and deadly social conflict. After Mao’s death, the party adopted a model of collective leadership designed to prevent any one man from holding too much power, essentially promising the Chinese people that such a disaster would never happen again.
The party’s move to dismantle the tradition of collective leadership feels to many like a slap in the face. It has mobilized many Chinese, even those who usually avoid politics, to speak out on social media and, in some cases, to even publicly state their lack of consent. The slogan “I disagree” appeared widely on Chinese social media platform Weibo before the phrase was blocked, along with many other similar posts, by the government’s internet censors.
“We think a lot more attention should be paid to this proposal as it might plunge us into another round of the Cultural Revolution,” the organizers told FP, referring to the chaotic decade when party fanatics killed or imprisoned many people across the country.
The student organizers chose #IDISAGREE as one of their hashtags, along with #NotMyPresident, publicizing the campaign on Twitter, creating a poster template available for download, and reaching out to Chinese students at many schools to encourage them to join.
It’s a big risk, as they are well aware. The Chinese government keeps close tabs on Chinese students studying at American universities, as a recent FP investigation revealed. Back in China, criticizing party policies and leaders can result in detention, stymied careers, and jail time. And many Chinese students, raised in an education system steeped with patriotism and party propaganda remain genuinely nationalist during their time abroad.
At least one of the Chinese-language posters, though not its English counterpart, was torn down soon after being posted, according to a photo posted on Twitter.
But the organizers said that they have been encouraged by the response they’ve gotten from Chinese students both in the United States and in other Western countries. More importantly, however, the campaign leaders feel they can’t just do nothing.
“We as a group of Chinese citizens overseas already enjoy the privilege to study and work in countries where free speech is not only protected but also encouraged,” said the organizers.
“If we don’t speak up for our people at home, who would?”
Charlie Vest contributed research.