“Not My President”: A rare display of defiance by Chinese students to Xi Jinping’s indefinite rule

No objection?
No objection?
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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Yesterday (March 11), China’s largely rubber-stamped legislature, the National People’s Congress, gave near-unanimous approval for a constitutional change that paves the way for president Xi Jinping to stay in power for life: 2,958 delegates voted for the measure, and only five voted against or abstained.

As criticism within mainland China to the ending of the presidential term limit has been almost entirely silenced, vocal signs of opposition are emerging abroad. Posters with slogans protesting the removal of the presidential term limit have been appearing at several foreign universities since last week, with many of them showing a portrait of Xi with the phrase “Not My President”:

The idea was initiated on March 1 by the people behind a Twitter account named “Xi’s Not My President,” which now has over 2,000 followers. The organizers claimed in interviews with media to be a group of mainland Chinese students living in Western countries, and told Foreign Policy (paywall) last week that their posters have been put up in at least a dozen universities in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia. The people behind the Twitter account did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Quartz. 

Wu Lebao, a Chinese undergraduate student at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra who fled China in 2013 to seek asylum after being jailed for supporting the Arab Spring, told Quartz that he put up 10 posters at ANU last week in protest of Xi. He also posted selfies with the posters on Twitter.

“I want people to see that… he will likely rule indefinitely like Mao Zedong,” said Wu. The ending of the presidential term limit “will pose great danger to China, such as bringing another Cultural Revolution,” he added, referring to the chaotic, decade-long mass campaign to weed out political opponents under Mao’s rule.

Sulaiman Gu, a PhD candidate in chemistry at the University of Georgia, started an alternative campaign called “Never My President.” Gu, who identifies himself as an activist and a member of China’s Hui Muslim ethnic minority, believes that the anonymous students accepted Xi as the Chinese president when he had a limited term, though he himself never recognized Xi as China’s lawful leader. With that in mind, he has called on seven students to place posters with the phrase “Never My President” in seven universities, he told Quartz.

“The current totalitarian framework based on military conquests and political crackdown is unacceptable, no matter what its fake constitution says about Xi’s unelected presidency. With or without a term limit, he has never been our president and communist China is not our nation,” he said.

After the Chinese Communist Party’s proposal to remove the presidential term limit was first announced last month, Chinese internet users turned to memes to protest or make fun of the decision, but censors moved quickly to put down such discussions.

Many overseas Chinese students are afraid to express their opinions on politics, but many are also likely to defend their government. In February 2017, a group of Chinese students at the University of California San Diego protested the invitation of the Dalai Lama—the Tibetan spiritual leader who’s considered a separatist by Beijing—as a guest speaker at a graduation ceremony. 

Wu, the ANU student, says three of his posters were torn down hours after he put them up. If he catches the culprits, he said he would ask them: “Do you disagree with what the posters say, or do you find them offensive?”