La búsqueda del gato de caricatura que desconcierta a los censores de China

6 hours ago

By Tessa Wong, Asia Digital Reporter


A Chinese dissident – who is behind a popular X account fronted by this cartoon cat – says Beijing is trying to silence him

As anti-lockdown protests flared across China’s cities in November 2022, hundreds of thousands around the world were glued to an unlikely source: a mysterious X account, fronted by a cartoon cat.

Protest footage, details about police movements, news of arrests – Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher posted a torrent of real-time updates sourced from ordinary citizens.

Little of it could be found on China’s tightly-controlled state media or internet. All of it was curated by one person, sitting in a bedroom in Italy – an art school student named Li Ying.

Mr Li has since become a vital chronicler of information deemed politically sensitive by Beijing. His X account is a window into Xi Jinping’s China where authorities’ vice-like grip on information keeps tightening. From major protests to small acts of dissent, corruption to crime, it is zealously scrubbed off the Chinese internet, only to turn up on Mr Li’s account.

He says this has earned him the wrath of the authorities and, in an interview with the BBC, he painted a clear picture of how Beijing pressures dissidents overseas. He alleged the Chinese government is not only harassing him but also his friends, family and X followers in a coordinated campaign of intimidation.

The Chinese government has not responded to our questions and we are unable to independently verify all of Mr Li’s claims. But the tactics he detailed have been documented by activists, rights groups and other governments.

His activism was an accident, he told the BBC over the phone.

“It is the Chinese authorities’ unrelenting constriction of freedom of speech and media freedoms that has led me to slowly change from an ordinary person to who I am today.”

Getty Images

China’s sudden and grueling lockdowns, which saw entire neighborhoods barricaded behind fences like this for weeks on end, sparked huge anger

Li’s online existence began with writing and posting love stories on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform. “I was someone who had made love my main creative theme, I had nothing to do with politics,” the son of two art teachers explained. Even the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which Beijing stamped out, hardly made an impact on him: “I was just like many ordinary people, I didn’t think that the protests had anything to do with me.”

Then the pandemic struck. As China sealed itself off, Mr Li – by now studying at a prestigious art school in Italy – became desperate to find out what was going on back home. Scouring social media, he was shocked to read about the crushing lockdowns: “There were people starving, even jumping off buildings… the feeling at the time was of a lot of suffering and pressure.”

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He started discussing these stories on Weibo. Some followers privately sent him their stories asking him to publish on their behalf, which he did. Censors took notice, and blocked his account.

Undeterred, he began a cat-and-mouse game, setting up a new Weibo account each time they shut one down. Fifty-three accounts later, he had enough: “I said okay, I’m going on Twitter.”

On X, unfettered by China’s censors, yet accessible through virtual private networks, Mr Li’s following grew. But it only really exploded, to more than a million, in late 2022 during the White Paper protests against China’s punishing zero-Covid measures.

His account became an important clearing house for protest information; at one point, he was deluged with messages every second. Mr Li hardly slept, fact-checking and posting submissions that racked up hundreds of millions of views.

Online death threats from anonymous accounts soon followed. He said the authorities arrived at his parents’ home in China to question them. Even then, he was sure life would return to normal once the protests died down.

“After I finished reporting on the White Paper movement, I thought that the most important thing I could ever do in this life was finished,” he said. “I didn’t think about continuing to operate this account. But just as I was thinking about what I should do next, suddenly all my bank accounts in China were frozen.

“That’s when I realized – I couldn’t go back anymore.”


Teacher Li jokes that he is China’s most feared cat, in reference to his X avatar

Fears about Chinese espionage have been steadily growing in the West as ties with China sour. What worries them are reports that Beijing is surveilling and pressuring its citizens who live in foreign jurisdictions. China has dismissed these allegations as “groundless and malicious defamation”, and said it is committed to protecting the rights and safety of its people abroad.

But the accusations are mounting. Last year US authorities alleged that a Chinese police taskforce was using social media including X to harass Chinese targets online, and charged dozens for “interstate threats”.

Australia is reportedly investigating a Chinese espionage operation targeting residents and a former spy has told Australian media how he targeted a political cartoonist in Cambodia and an activist in Thailand. Rights group Amnesty International found that Chinese studying overseas who took part in anti-government protests were being surveilled.

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Analysts trace China’s so-called transnational repression back to the decade-old Operation Foxhunt to catch fugitive criminals. They believe those tactics are now used to target anyone overseas that Beijing deems a threat.

Mr Li believes there are enough signs suggesting he is now one of these people. He said the police showed up at a company in China from which he had ordered art supplies in the past, demanding his Italian shipping information. He received calls from someone claiming to represent a European delivery service and asking for his current address, though he had never placed the order.

Details of his former address and phone number were published on the messaging platform WeChat.

Someone unfamiliar appeared at his old residence, seeking a meeting to discuss a “business proposal.” It is uncertain if Chinese authorities were directly involved in these occurrences, but the vagueness could be deliberate to instill fear and suspicion in individuals, according to Laura Harth, campaign director for rights organization Safeguard Defenders. Beijing is accused of collaborating with intermediaries, like Chinese entrepreneurs overseas, to later disavow direct participation. Safeguard Defenders claims the individual who visited the man’s former home has ties to one of China’s controversial foreign police stations. Nationalists and patriotic citizens are said to work alongside the government in a mutually beneficial relationship, as mentioned by Yaqiu Wang, China research director at Freedom House. The pressure on the man intensified in recent months, with authorities closely monitoring and questioning his parents, even enlisting their former employer to persuade him to cease his activities. The man estimated that hundreds of individuals have been interrogated and instructed to unfollow him, with some shown extensive lists of alleged followers to intimidate him and his supporters. The man expressed guilt over the situation, as those questioned were merely seeking information about China. Following his public disclosure of the interrogations, he experienced a significant drop in followers. The man received a barrage of harassing messages, including explicit content and disturbing images, coinciding with his posts about the Tiananmen massacre. Personal details about him and his parents were disclosed on a website by anonymous accounts, alleging he works for the Chinese government to sow doubt among his followers. The man described these actions as a “psychological attack” aimed at undermining his resolve. Experts suggest that authoritarian governments, including China, are increasingly targeting dissidents abroad due to the perceived threat posed by diaspora communities connected through social media. In China’s case, the intensification of tactics against individuals like the man is attributed to the government’s growing paranoia amidst economic challenges and talent outflows. Observers believe that the relentless repression against the man signifies a high-level, national strategy by the Chinese government. Despite the risks and personal sacrifices, the man continues his work as a vital source of information for his extensive following. En entrevistas anteriores había mencionado una novia, pero desde entonces han tomado caminos separados. “Ahora estoy solo”, dijo con franqueza. “Había demasiada presión. Pero no me siento solo porque interactúo con mucha gente en las redes sociales”.

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Sin embargo, admitió que está sintiendo la presión mental de su situación y las largas horas que pasa en línea. “Últimamente siento que mi capacidad para expresarme ha disminuido y estoy muy desenfocado”.

Aunque renovó recientemente su pasaporte, cree que las autoridades chinas permitieron esto para mantenerlo vigilado. Es un regalo amargo de su gobierno, ya que antes era un ávido viajero y ahora se siente atrapado.

“A menudo lamento [la vida que podría haber tenido]”, añadió. “Por otro lado, no me arrepiento de esto”.

“No me veo como un héroe, solo estaba haciendo lo que pensaba que era lo correcto en ese momento. Lo que he demostrado es que una persona común también puede hacer estas cosas”. Cree que si su cuenta se cierra, “naturalmente aparecerá un nuevo Maestro Li”.

El pensamiento de ser arrestado lo asusta, pero rendirse no es una opción. “Siento que soy una persona sin futuro… hasta que me encuentren y me devuelvan a China, o incluso me secuestren, seguiré haciendo lo que estoy haciendo”.

Al hacer públicas sus acusaciones, espera exponer las tácticas del gobierno chino. Pero también es porque cree que cruzaron una línea al intensificar su represión y quiere luchar. “Publico algo que no te gusta, así que me aplastas, ese es el proceso de una lucha mutua. Pero hacer todas estas cosas a mis padres, realmente no lo entiendo”.

Ahora, está haciendo planes desafiantes para expandir sus operaciones, quizás reclutar a otros para unirse a su misión, o publicar en inglés para ampliar su influencia. El gobierno chino “realmente teme que los extranjeros sepan cómo es realmente China… [Publicar en inglés] es algo que les da aún más miedo.

“Pueden sentir que tienen muchas tácticas, pero en realidad tengo muchas cartas que puedo jugar”.