China’s 'toilet revolution': How activists are hiding messages of protest in public spaces

“Remove the national thief Xi Jinping, China shouldn’t have an emperor,” reads this sticker, stuck on a bus railing in October 2022.
“Remove the national thief Xi Jinping, China shouldn’t have an emperor,” reads this sticker, stuck on a bus railing in October 2022. © Observers

When a lone protester hung up banners criticising the Chinese government just days before the 20th Communist Party Congress kicked off, he started a quiet but national revolution. Although the original activist’s whereabouts are now unknown, citizens have been spreading his message discreetly, from graffiti in public toilets to stickers on buses, to Airdrops of messages criticising the Chinese president. 


"Xi Jinping is an emperor with no limits,” reads the message printed in black letters on a small white sticker, which has been appearing on bus handrails, on billboards and on the saddles of bikes for hire across China. 

'I don't dare to make large banners'

Our Observer, L, put stickers up around his town. For safety reasons, he didn’t want to share the name of his town publicly. 

I have a pocket label printer, it is cheap to buy on Taobao, less than 100 yuan [Editor's note: Taobao is the Chinese equivalent of Amazon. 100 yuan is approximately 14 euros]. And the palm of your hand is about the same size.

I generally stick to places with more foot traffic, but people rarely pay attention. There are a lot of shared bicycles parked on the street. If you want to ride a bike, you have to scan the QR and check of the condition of the vehicle: this is the time to notice my banner.

At first, I was very nervous and scared. Then I slowly adapted. I usually stick more than 10 per day. 

In China, expressing disagreement with the government can result in a prison sentence, especially if your comments are about the president, Xi Jinping. 

As a result, any kind of public opposition to the government is rare. That made it all the more shocking when, on October 13 – just three days before the start of the 20th Communist Party Conference – an activist, later identified as "Peng Lifa", hung two banners on one of Beijing’s main roads criticising “dictator Xi Jinping" and the health situation in the country. 

The activist was later arrested. For the time being, no one knows what happened to him. All of the photos and comments about the protest have been censored on Chinese social media. But that hasn’t stopped people from spreading his message.

>> Read more on The Observers: 'Remove the dictator Xi Jinping': Images show rare protest in Beijing

One of them is our Observer, who started to stick his protest stickers around town shortly after Lifa’s protest.

I think the hero of the four-way bridge is too brave, too tragic. The biggest regret is that he did not evacuate in time, or he just did not want to evacuate. I don't have the guts to do that.

I don't have huge power, but I do have tiny power. I don't dare to make large banners, but I dare to make small ones. I carefully evaluated that such small banners are very difficult to trace and very easy to operate.

The initiative has gotten a lot of traction on Twitter. It was even shared by Fengsuo Zhou, who, back in 1989, led the protests in Tian’anmen Square as a student activist.

'It takes a lot of courage and ingenuity to protest in this way'

Our team spoke to Fengsuo Zhou. He said that the person behind the sticker initiative shared his idea as part of a Twitter discussion involving more than 600 people who wanted to find a way to help to spread Peng Lifa’s message. 

The pocket printer is easy to carry and hide from cameras; printing is fast, immediate, making it the best choice for sticking posters in public spaces. But I wouldn't be surprised if China eventually bans pocket printers.

Given the pervasive surveillance in China, it takes a lot of courage and ingenuity to protest in this way. 

Many are inspired by Peng Lifa, the Sitong Bridge protester. He sent the message that you can always find a way to do something with careful planning if you are brave enough.

The 'toilet revolution'

Photos documenting other messages of support for Peng Lifa’s message have been circulating online. US media outlet Vice reported that someone on the Shanghai metro used Airdrop, an iPhone function that enables someone to send images wirelessly to nearby phones, to send anti-Xi Jinping messages to everyone around them.

Other photos have documented messages of opposition in Chinese public toilets. 

On Twitter, people have been calling the appearance of all of these messages of opposition in public spaces the "toilet revolution".

These images show the toilets in Beijing’s film archives. The graffiti and posters call on people to oppose the regime, spreading the message of the lone protester who hung banners along a main street in Beijing on October 13.

These photos are said to have been taken in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. But they are difficult to geolocate because they are close-up images of interior spaces. We did note however that the signs that appear in some of the photos are written in Simplified Chinese, which is only used in continental China. 

'The banners really expressed what an average Chinese person now in China really thinks'

The Instagram account "Citizens Daily" has collected a bunch of these images, many of which were sent to them directly (as opposed to being posted on social media). Valentina (not her real name) is one of the Chinese students who runs this account. Most of them, like Valentina, live outside of China. 

People sent us the photos and we asked if it’s okay to share their location. We did not call for any resistance within China. We applaud people that are willing to risk their safety and we are happy to help give them a platform, but since our conception we have never encouraged people to engage in risky resistance activities if they are still living in China.

The first, second and tenth images were taken in Chinese toilets, according to “Citizen daily”.The graffiti and posters have taken up the message of Peng Lifa. They are critical of the government and its management of Covid and have called for the end to Xi Jinping’s rule.

The resentment people feel towards Xi Jinping I feel is pretty universal in China. Personally I’ve not met anyone in real life that doesn’t have complaints towards him or the zero-Covid policy. So I feel like the banners really expressed what an average Chinese person now in China really thinks, things they cannot say in public or even think about because of their fear for the possible retaliation from the regime.

Valentina says that most of the protest images shared on Citizens Daily come from students who live abroad. "Citizens Daily" said that there have been messages of protest against the Chinese regime popping up on the campuses of 320 universities around the world. She says that these acts of protest are not without risk for Chinese people living abroad, because they have family back in China and also might return to the country one day. 

After the Sitong Bridge incident, we started to receive photography and posters from Chinese studying or working overseas, airing support for that anonymous citizen. So we made a few posters to call forth more submissions. Apparently it’s a hit. To date we are only receiving more and more. And the level of creativity is simply amazing. People are getting really brave and passionate.

'The fight is still going on and we are not alone'

People’s creativity is endless. I’m sure even if all the methods we know about now gets banned we can come up with new ways to get our message across. It will be hard but it will be possible. 

I think it’s essential to archive our efforts to keep reminding everyone that the fight is still going on and we are not alone. We have many people fighting with us.