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China arrests artist who painted, tweeted portrait of ‘Bridge Man’ protester

Latest example of authorities clamping down on free expression in wake of nationwide protests

By Mia Ping-Chieh Chen, Gu Ting and Gao Feng for RFA Mandarin

December 12, 2022

Xiao Liang’s Twitter was last updated on Oct. 15, 2022, the same day he posted a portrait of Sitong Bridge protester Peng Lifa [shown].

Chinese authorities have arrested an artist who painted a portrait of the "Bridge Man" protester Peng Lifa and posted it on Twitter, his wife and a rights group said, in the latest example of restrictions on free expression in the country in the wake of nationwide protests against harsh anti-virus measures.

The rights website Weiquanwang said it learned on Sunday that painter Xiao Liang, based in Nanchang, in the eastern province of Jiangxi, was recently arrested. His detention was confirmed to Radio Free Asia by his wife on Monday.

Peng was dubbed the “Bridge Man” after he hung a protest banner from a Beijing overpass in October calling on President Xi Jinping to step down, as well as for “food, not PCR tests, freedom, not lockdowns, reforms, not the Cultural Revolution.”

Images of the banner went viral and sparked sympathetic protests and social media support around the world, and Peng was almost immediately detained by police.

"We heard that Xiao was initially held by the authorities under administrative detention for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," before being transferred to criminal detention," the Weiquanwang report said.

The last tweet to appear on his account, @xiaolong999, was a photograph of the portrait, dated Oct. 15.

"I happened to be out with friends when he was taken away and didn't get the news until [later]," said his wife, who gave only her surname Yan. "They have asked me to cooperate with their investigation. The police told me he painted somebody [politically] sensitive and circumvented the [Great Fire]wall."

"I told them he doesn't have many friends and spends most of his time at home," she said. "I was [at the police station] for a few hours, and they wouldn't let him come home with me."

Self-taught artist

Yan said she is concerned about her 63-year-old husband's health.

"He has high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and high blood lipids, and he has a very serious intervertebral disc herniation," she said. "The police told me that he is fine and that the doctor [in the detention center] can deal with it."

Yan said she is unsure whether to hire a rights attorney, or whether it would risk "angering the police," leading to a worse outcome for Xiao.

Chinese Dissident poet Wang Zang [right] has been given a four-year jail term, while his wife Wang Li was jailed for two years. Credit: Citizen journalist

"He taught himself to draw and paint. He loves to paint and draw, and paints all kinds of people: men, women, young and old, Chinese and foreign celebrities," she said. "The starting point for his painting of this person [Peng Lifa] was that they were the protagonist of the Sitong Bridge incident in Beijing."

Xiao's detention came after authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang detained dissident Wu Jingsheng after he reposted the slogans displayed on Peng's banners on the Sitong traffic flyover in Beijing's Haidian district, days before the ruling Chinese Communist Party convened its five-yearly party congress.

Struck a chord

Retired Shanghai University lecturer Gu Guoping told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview that Peng's banners had struck a chord with many in China.

"[His protest] was representative of the innermost thoughts, hopes and wishes of the majority of people on the lowest rungs of mainland Chinese society," Gu said. "[Peng and his supporters] had the courage to stand up and make this appeal on behalf of everyone."

"This is hugely important ... the Communist Party cannot be allowed to destroy our human rights in this way," he said. "Those rights are enshrined in our constitution, and yet they say one thing and do another."

Gu called on the international community to keep track of China's record on implementing international human rights laws and treaties, and try to help victims of rights abuses.

Authorities in the southwestern province of Guizhou also detained several members of the Guizhou Human Rights Forum, including Shen Youlian, Liao Shuangyuan, Huang Yanming, Li Renke, and Zeng Ning.

The activists were taken away by Guiyang state security police on enforced "vacations" ahead of Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, a dissident who asked to remain anonymous told Radio Free Asia.

"All of the members of the organization were taken out of town by police from several different police stations in Guiyang city and held under house arrest," the dissident said, adding that they were held for "two to three days" before being allowed back home.

Two prominent Guizhou activists, Chen Xi and Mi Chongbiao, remain under close surveillance following their release from prison, they said.

"The police sent people to watch their homes constantly, and none of their friends or co-workers are allowed to visit them: they are basically isolated," the dissident said.

Dissident poet and wife sentenced

Meanwhile, dissident poet Wang Zang and his wife Wang Liqin were jailed by a court in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan after it found them guilty of "incitement to subvert state power" in connection with his public support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, Weiquanwang reported.

Wang Zang was handed a four-year jail term by the Chuxiong Prefecture Intermediate People's Court, while his wife Wang Li was jailed for two years. Both have said they were unhappy with the verdict and sentencing, and have vowed to appeal, Weiquanwang reported on Dec. 11.

It said the trial, which took place in December 2021, had focused on Wang Zang's social media posts as evidence for the charges, including his poetry and performance art. He was detained by Beijing police in November 2014 after posting a photo of himself with an umbrella in support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.

He has also taken part in activities commemorating the death of Mao-era dissident Lin Zhao, the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre and actively supported Uyghurs and Tibetans persecuted by the government, the report said.

The charges against Wang Li appear to stem from her speaking out about her husband's arrest via social media and interviews she gave to foreign journalists, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

The wife of prominent human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi said there are concerns over the well-being of her husband and fellow activist Xu Zhiyong, who haven't been allowed visits from lawyers or family members while in pretrial detention.

"Lawyers haven't been allowed in to meet with Xu Zhiyong or Ding Jiaxi for several months now, and I haven't heard anything from [Xu's wife] Li Qiaochu," Ding's overseas-ased wife Luo Shengchun told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview. "There has been no trial or sentence, yet there's no reason for the delay."

"Not holding a trial is in violation of Chinese law, which tells us that the Communist Party doesn't abide by its own laws."

Luo said the human rights situation in China is only getting worse. "There has been no let-up in the suppression of human rights defenders,” Luo said. “It's still going on."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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