Teacher Li: The hunt for the cartoon cat vexing China's censors (2024)

ByTessa Wong,Asia Digital Reporter

Teacher Li: The hunt for the cartoon cat vexing China's censors (1)Teacher Li: The hunt for the cartoon cat vexing China's censors (2)BBC

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."

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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.”

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 realised - I couldn’t go back anymore.”

Teacher Li: The hunt for the cartoon cat vexing China's censors (5)Teacher Li: The hunt for the cartoon cat vexing China's censors (6)X

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 an 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. A stranger turned up at his former home, asking to meet him as he wanted 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 middlemen, such as Chinese businessmen based abroad, so the government can later deny 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.

“Often there are nationalists and patriotic people who work with the government in a tandem, symbiotic relationship,” said Yaqiu Wang, China research director at Freedom House. The thinking, she said, is “if I do this for the authorities then it’s good for my business”.

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

Authorities began surveilling and questioning his parents more – at one point the visits happened every day, he said. Even officials from the school they used to work for asked 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 person was allegedly even pressured to confess he was Mr Li.

Followers on X have been telling Mr Li they have been asked to "drink tea" - a euphemism for police interrogations - since the end of last year.

He estimated a few hundred people have been questioned and told to unfollow him. Some people have been shown long lists of names purportedly of his followers, with one list running up to 10,000 names, according to Mr Li. He believes authorities did this to show the scale of their interrogations and intimidate him and his followers.

“Of course I feel very guilty. They only wanted to understand what is going on in China, and then they ended up being asked to ‘drink tea’,” he said. In February, he made these reports public with a warning on X – overnight, more than 200,000 people unfollowed him.

It’s unclear how the authorities tracked down X users in China, where the app is blocked. While some could have been identified through their tweets, many would have tried to conceal their identities.

It is plausible the Chinese government asked for user details, said Ms Wang. If so, X “should be transparent” about whether it agreed to any such requests. X has yet to respond to the BBC’s queries.

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Shortly after Mr Li posted about the interrogations, anonymous accounts began flooding his inbox and X comment threads with spam. They sent crude cartoons of his parents and p*rnographic 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. The BBC has seen screenshots of this.

These messages have hit a fever pitch in recent days, with one showing up 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 information about him and his parents, including their pictures, have been posted on a website promoted by anonymous X accounts. The website also alleges he is working for the Chinese government, in a seeming attempt to sow distrust among his followers.

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

It is not clear who is behind all of this, but Mr Li said it is a “psychological attack” aimed at wearing down his nerves.

Teacher Li: The hunt for the cartoon cat vexing China's censors (9)Teacher Li: The hunt for the cartoon cat vexing China's censors (10)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. “As more overseas communities become more active and social media connects them to people back home, authoritarian governments increasingly feel diaspora communities can pose a threat to them,” he said.

But in China’s case, he added, they are stepping up their tactics because of “the growing paranoia of the Chinese government” besieged by an economic slowdown and outward flows of money and talent.

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

“He has become the aggregator which people send information to, and that is very scary to the authorities… he has a kind of power that nobody else has had in the past.”

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 stymies their vast efforts to censor negative news, and also because he represents a new generation of internet savvy, politically conscious Chinese youth, he said. “What this White Paper protest generation represents is exactly the kind of ideology they do not want everyone to see.”

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His work has come at an enormous personal cost. He moves frequently within Italy, staying only a few months in each location, and hardly leaves the house. He hasn’t found steady work, and survives on online donations and earnings from YouTube and X.

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

He admitted, though, that he is feeling the mental strain of his situation and the long hours he spends online. “I feel lately my ability to express myself has dropped, and I’m very unfocused.”

Though he recently renewed his passport, he believes Chinese authorities allowed this to keep tabs on him. It is a bitter gift from his government – once an avid traveller, he now feels trapped.

“I often mourn [the life I could have],” he added. “On the other hand, I don’t regret this.”

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“I don’t see myself as a hero, I was only doing what I thought was the right thing at the time. What I’ve demonstrated is that an ordinary person can also do these things.” He believes that if his account shuts down, “naturally a new Teacher Li will appear”.

The thought of getting arrested scares him, 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.”

By going public with his allegations, he hopes to expose the Chinese government’s tactics. But it’s also because he believes they crossed a line by escalating their repression, and wants to fight back. “I post something you don’t like, so you crush me, that is the process of a mutual fight. But doing all these things to my parents, I really don’t understand it.”

Now, he is making defiant plans to expand his operations, perhaps recruiting others to join his mission, or posting in English to widen 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 feel they have a lot of tactics, but I actually have a lot of cards I can play.”

China

Teacher Li: The hunt for the cartoon cat vexing China's censors (2024)
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