Teacher Li: The hunt for the cartoon cat vexing China’s censors

Teacher Li: The hunt for the cartoon cat vexing China's censors

By Tessa WongAsia Digital Reporter

BBC An illustration showing China on the hunt for the cartoon cat, which is peeking over a globe BBC

In November 2022, anti-lockdown demonstrations erupted in China’s cities, and hundreds of thousands of people around the world were glued to an odd source: a strange X accounts fronted by a cartoon rabbit.

Professor Li Is Not Your Professor posted a slew of real-time updates sourced from regular citizens, including protest film, details about police movements, and news of arrests.

Little of it could be found on China’s securely- controlled position internet or online. One man, a student from an art class named Li Ying, was responsible for curating everything, sitting in a home in Italy.

Mr. Li has since developed into a significant journal of information that Beijing views as politically delicate. His X accounts is a glass into Xi Jinping’s China where authorities’ vice- like hold on data keeps tightening. It is vigorously removed from the Chinese internet, just to appear on Mr. Li’s account after major protests, small acts of dissent, corruption, and crime.

He claims that this has caused him to suffer the wrath of the government, and he described how Beijing exerts pressure on dissidents abroad in an appointment with the BBC. He alleged the Chinese govt is not only harassing him but even his friends, relatives and X fans in a coordinated plan of harassment.

We are unable to freely verify Mr. Li’s assertions because the Taiwanese government has not responded to our inquiries. However, the strategies he described had been documented by governments, protesters, and human rights organizations.

His engagement was an injury, he told the BBC over the telephone.

” It is the Chinese officials’ unending restriction of freedom of speech and press rights that has caused me to gradually transition from an ordinary man to who I am today.”

Getty Images A woman wheels a man in a wheelchair past a fence surrounding a neighborhood placed under lockdown due to Covid-19 in Shanghai, China, on Friday, June 10, 2022. Getty Images

Li’s website life began with writing and posting adore tales on Weibo, the Chinese blogging system. The child of two artwork teachers asserted that” I had made love my principal artistic theme, and I had no connection to politics.” Even the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which Beijing stomped out, hardly made an impression on him:” I was just like many ordinary people, I did n’t think 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.”

He started discussing these reports on Weibo. Some of his followers personally wrote to him, asking him to post their stories. Citizens took observe and blocked his accounts.

Undaunted, he began a kitty- and- keyboard game, setting up a fresh Weibo account each time they shut one over. After fifty or three records, he finally had plenty:” I said fine, I’m going on Twitter.”

Mr. Li’s following grew on X, unaffected by China’s editors and available via virtual private networks. But it only really exploded, to more than a million, in soon 2022 during the White Paper protests against China’s rewarding zero- Covid methods.

His profile eventually became a significant clearinghouse for opposition information, and at one point, he was flooded with messages every minute. Mr. Li spent almost any time sleeping, fact-checking, and posting proposals that received hundreds of millions of views.

Online death challenges from private records soon followed. He claimed that the authorities had visited his parents ‘ home in China to question them. Perhaps so, he was certain that life may resume normal once the protests had ended.

” After I finished reporting on the White Paper motion, I thought that the most important thing I could ever do in this career was finished”, he said. I did n’t consider keeping this account running. However, all of my Chinese bank accounts immediately were frozen as I was contemplating what to do next.

” That’s when I realised- I was n’t come back again.”

X Screen capture of Teacher Li's X account pageX

As ties to China deteriorate, fears of Chinese spying have been rapidly waning in the West. They are concerned about reports that Beijing is monitoring and pressuring its people who reside in foreign countries. China has dismissed these claims as” groundless and malignant defamation”, and said it is committed to protecting the rights and safety of its citizens worldwide.

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.

According to analysts, China’s alleged international repression dates back to Operation Foxhunt, which was launched to catch fugitive criminals in the 1980s. They believe those techniques are now used to target people abroad that Beijing deems a risk.

Mr. Li thinks that there are enough indications that he is a part of this group. He claimed that the police demanded his Italian shipping information when they arrived at a Chinese company from which he had previously ordered art supplies. He received calls from someone claiming to represent an European delivery service and asking for his current address, though he had never placed the order.

On WeChat, details of his previous address and phone number were made available. A stranger approached his former home and requested a meeting to discuss a “business proposal.”

It is not clear whether Chinese authorities were directly behind these incidents. But this kind of ambiguity can be intentional as it stokes “an ever-present fear of persecution and distrust” in targets, said Laura Harth, campaign director for rights group Safeguard Defenders which recently highlighted Mr Li’s situation.

Beijing is accused of working with intermediaries, such as Chinese businessmen based abroad, so the government can later refute direct involvement. Safeguard Defenders alleges the person who showed up at Mr Li’s former home is a businessman linked to one of China’s controversial overseas police stations.

Yaqiu Wang, the director of China research at Freedom House, observed that “frequently there are nationalists and patriotic people working with the government in a tandem, symbiotic relationship.” She said,” If I do this for the authorities then it’s good for my business.”

Getty Images Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a signing ceremony with Tunisian President Kais Saied (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People on May 31, 2024 in Beijing, ChinaGetty Images

The pressure has ramped up in recent months, Mr Li said.

Authorities began conducting additional surveillance and questioning of his parents; at one point, he claimed, the visits were once per day. Even the school’s administrators contacted them to persuade Mr. Li to stop.

” They are interrogating everyone in China who is linked to me, even WeChat contacts, trying to understand my life habits, understand what kind of restaurants I like to go to, “he said. One individual allegedly faced intimidation to admit they were Mr. Li.

Followers on X have been telling Mr. Li they have been asked to “drink tea,” a cliche for police interrogations, since the end of last year.

He estimated a few hundred people have been questioned and told to unfollow him. According to Mr. Li, some people have been shown lengthy lists of purported followers ‘ names, with one list containing up to 10,000 names. He thinks that authorities intimidated him and his followers by revealing the scale of their interrogations.

” Of course I feel very guilty. They merely wanted to know what is happening in China, and he later said they were asked to “drink tea.” He made these reports public in February with a warning on X; over 200, 000 people unfollowed him over the course of one day.

It’s unclear how the authorities tracked down X users in China, where the app is blocked. Many people attempted to conceal their identities, while some could have been identified by their tweets.

According to Ms. Wang, it is possible that the Chinese government requested user information. If so, X” should be transparent” about whether it agreed to any such requests. The BBC has yet to respond to their inquiries.

Soon after Mr. Li’s post on the interrogations, spam started pouring his inboxes and X comment threads. They sent crude cartoons of his parents and pornographic content, in recent weeks, he has received gruesome images from horror films, and photos and videos of cats being tortured- he said it’s because they know he loves cats. This has been seen in screenshots by the BBC.

These messages have recently reached a fever pitch, with one displaying in his inbox every few minutes. This coincided with Mr Li’s posts related to the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 ahead of its anniversary on 4 June, a taboo topic for the Chinese Communist Party.

Personal data about him and his parents, as well as their photos, have been published on a website promoted by anonymous X accounts. In an apparent attempt to stoke distrust among his followers, the website claims that he is employed by the Chinese government.

A check on the website’s domain found it was set up in April and its registrant listed their location as China and Tasmania. A Hong Kong company hosts its IP address.

Although it is not known who is responsible for all of this, Mr. Li claimed that it is a “psychological attack” meant to “wobble down his nerves.”

Getty Images A young woman and man looking at their phones in China Getty Images

China is not alone in going after overseas dissidents, said political scientist Ho- fung Hung of Johns Hopkins University, pointing to similar allegations against India and Turkey”. Authoritarian governments are increasingly concerned that diaspora communities can pose a threat to them as more overseas communities become more active and social media connects them to people back home, he said.

However, he continued, in China, they are using more effective strategies because of” the growing paranoia of the Chinese government, which is besieged by an economic slowdown and foreign direct investment.

Observers say this paranoia appears to be fuelling a uniquely intense repression of Mr Li. What was happening to him, according to Ms. Wang, had the signs of a “national, really high-level plan.”

He has a power that nobody else has had in the past, and that is very frightening to the authorities because he has become the aggregator that people send information to.

Wryly, Mr Li said he could be dubbed China’s” most dangerous cat” – a reference to his X profile picture, which he drew.

His government targets him because he criticizes their extensive efforts to censor negative news and because he represents a new generation of politically conscious, internet-savvy Chinese youth, he said. This White Paper protest generation embodies exactly the kind of ideology they do not want everyone to see.

Getty Images A young man in a mask at a protest along with several others against China's zero-Covid policy in Shanghai on November 27, 2022Getty Images

His work has come at an enormous personal cost. He rarely leaves the house, spending only a few months there, and moves frequently within Italy. He has n’t found steady employment, and he only makes money from YouTube and X through online donations.

He lives alone with his two cats, Guolai and Diandian. He had mentioned a girlfriend in earlier interviews, but they have since parted ways. He said matter-of-factly,” I’m all by myself now.” There was too much pressure. However, because I interact with a lot of people on social media, I do n’t feel alone.

He acknowledged, however, that his prolonged online activity and mental strain are making him feel anxious. I feel lately my ability to express myself has dropped, and I’m very unfocused.”

He claims that Chinese authorities permitted this to keep an eye on him despite the fact that he recently renewed his passport. He used to enjoy traveling and is now feeling trapped, which is a bitter gift from his government.

” I often mourn]the life I could have ], “he added”. On the other hand, I have no regrets about this.

I do n’t consider myself a hero; I just act in accordance with what I saw as the right decision at the time. What I’ve demonstrated is that an ordinary person can also do these things. He believes that a new Teacher Li will appear if his account is shut down.

He is afraid to go on an arrest, but giving up is not an option. I feel I am a person with no future … until they find me and pull me back to China, or even kidnap me, I will continue doing what I’m doing.”

He hopes to expose the Chinese government’s tactics by making his allegations public. He also wants to fight back because he thinks they “overstepped the mark” by escalating their oppression. I post something you do n’t like, so you crush me, that is the process of a mutual fight. But I really do n’t understand it if I do all of these things to my parents.

He is currently making resolute plans to expand his business, perhaps enlisting others to help him with his mission, or posting in English to expand his influence. The Chinese government” is really afraid of outsiders knowing what China is really like…]Posting in English ] is something they are even more afraid of.

They may believe they have a lot of tactics, but I actually have a lot of cards to play.