How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information
As protests against China’s rigid covid control measures in China engulfed social media over the past week, one account on Twitter has emerged as the main source of information: @Li Shi Bu Shi Ni Leo Shi (“Teacher Li is not Your Teacher”) People from all over China have sent their protest footage and live updates to the account via private messages. The account has then posted them on their behalf, taking care to keep the sources anonymous in a time of uncertainty and fear.
There is only one person behind this account: Li, a Chinese artist based in Italy. He requested to be identified by his last name due to security risks. Although he has not received any training in journalism, he continues to operate what has essentially been a one-person newsroom.
At the peak of activity over the weekend, Li was receiving dozens of submissions every second, and he did his best to filter out unreliable information in a matter of moments. Even though he had been anonymously posting submissions for the past year, it was a completely new experience. While he has long talked about Chinese social issues online, sometime in 2021 he started receiving private messages on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter (which is banned in China), from people asking him to post on their behalf. They were afraid of exposing their identities.
His posts would get removed by Chinese censors, and by February, his account was banned. Over the next two months, another 49 of his accounts were suspended. His followers allowed him to borrow their numbers to continue registering for more. In April 2022, after he could no longer access new Weibo accounts, he finally moved to Twitter. He quickly built a large following on Twitter, which he used to access blocked social media platforms via VPN.
Then, last week, workers in a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou started a violent confrontation with management, and Li started monitoring the situation through Chinese social media and follower submissions. He slept for only three hours that night.
More protests broke out in major Chinese cities over the weekend. Li posted more real-time footage of protests to help people in China find information to allow them to decide if they want to join in and also to inform people from outside China about what was happening. Li said that even though they aren’t in China right now, things are happening and they’re monitoring.
His Twitter account is now the hub for information on the protests, having gained over 600,000 followers in the past tumultuous week alone.
The hard work has been difficult. His account name has been censored in China by social media platforms including Weibo, WeChat, and Weibo. In DMs, he is receiving death threats and insults. Police have also visited his family in China.
But the anxiety has been mixed in with a feeling he feels liberated as he is able to use social media to say the name Xi Jinping without fear. Li joked that his Twitter avatar (a doodle of cat) has become the most famous, and most dangerous, cat of all time.
Li spoke to me about the pressures of being under and how difficult it is to stay objective. Although this work has consumed almost every waking moment, he said that he finally made the decision to take breaks on Monday, which led to a surprise encounter with a woman who touched his heart.
Here’s Li’s story, told in his own words. The following transcript has been lightly edited and rearranged to make it more clear. –Zeyi Yang
On lending his voice to people who are afraid
This account is, in essence, the same as many other ordinary Twitter users’. I share my life, topics that are related to my profession, as well as social issues.
But this account also serves another purpose. Although I don’t remember when it began, I started receiving submissions. People would send me private messages to tell me about their lives or share their stories. I would then post it for them. I believe this phenomenon may have been caused by the stronger internet and speech controls on Chinese online platforms since Xi Jinping’s rise to power. People are afraid to post things on the internet, even though their accounts are anonymous. They still want to express themselves, so they need someone else to do it.
It was the same on Weibo. Last year, at a time when I only had less than 10,000 followers, people slowly realized that this person could speak [for them], so they came to me. When news broke in February about the birth of eight children Editor’s Note: She was a trafficking victim and was found chained in a shed , I helped someone to publish a submission about his search for his sister. That was reposted over 30,000 times on Weibo, and then my account was banned. In the months that followed my account’s deletion, I continued to register new accounts and they kept getting blocked. In about two months, I had 50 accounts suspended. The fastest record was when it took 10 minutes for an account to disappear [after registration]. I would immediately create a new account as soon as my account was deleted by [censors]. My followers–I don’t know why-–were able immediately to find me, so I gained thousands of followers in a matter of minutes. It ended when the regulators seemed to have found the website where I purchased those Weibo accounts. They then suspended that website and I was unable to access any more accounts.
I was really moved during that time. Weibo verifies your identity using your phone number. Many of my online friends lent me their numbers and said that they could verify my identity using my number. That was great. Later, I couldn’t get another account so I moved to Twitter.
My [Twitter] account was registered in 2020, but I actually started using it in April . Since the beginning, I have been receiving the latest news. I don’t know why, but there’s always someone on the ground who can send something to me immediately, including about the incident in Shanghai where people held up a white banner [in October]. Slowly, the number was growing.
Before I reported on the Foxconn incident, I had about 140,000 followers, and then it got to 190,000 when I finished reporting on Foxconn. I lost track of how many followers and I now have 0. [Editor’s note: By the time of our interview, Li had over 670,000 followers on Twitter; by the time of publishing, the number had increased to over 784,000. ]
On becoming a one-man newsroom (on only a few hours of sleep)
These days I sleep for about five hours, and I’m focusing on [Twitter] for the rest of the day. There is no one else. My girlfriend is not involved, only me.
In fact, the last time I was online for a long time was not during the Foxconn protest. The situation was rapidly changing and I could not stop it. It never crossed my mind that this had nothing to do whatsoever with me and I could go to bed. That thought never crossed my mind.
The fire in Urumqi [which sparked the broader wave of protests] has actually triggered a lot of empathy from the public. Everyone is concerned about the possibility of a fire, as all of them were once locked up in their homes and forbidden from going outside.
In every similar news event, regardless of whether the government was responsible for it, it would always censor news. People became furious after having their mouths shut again and again. No matter what happens, there will always be the last straw. It would happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow if it didn’t happen today.
I thought [the protest in] Xinjiang on the night of the 26th was a moment to be remembered in history, but it turned out that was just the beginning of the story.
Particularly when protesters chanted the slogans that originated from the Sitong Bridge protest, I was like, “Oh no, it’s going to be a very, very serious thing if people are shouting these slogans in the center of Shanghai.” I had to document it in a neutral and objective manner, because if not, it could soon be forgotten, even on Twitter. I thought, “I must take up the baton immediately,” and then I just started doing it.
It’s hard to describe the feeling that came after. It’s like everyone is coming to you and all kinds of information from all over the world is converging toward you and [people are] telling you: Hey, what’s happening here; hey, what’s happening there; do you know, this is what’s happening in Guangzhou; I’m in Wuhan, Wuhan is doing this; I’m in Beijing, and I’m following the big group and walking together. All the current information is suddenly being presented to me and I don’t know how to describe it. It was all happening so fast that I didn’t have time to think about it.
My heart beat very fast and my hands and brain were constantly switching between different software programs. Because you know, Twitter’s web version doesn’t allow you to save a video. So I was constantly switching between software to edit the video, export it, then post it on Twitter. [Editor’s note: Li adds subtitles and blocks out account information. She also compiles shorter videos into one. ] At the end, there was not enough time to edit the videos. If someone shot and sent over a 12-second WeChat video, I would just use it as is. That’s it.
I got the largest amount of [private messages] around 6: 00 p.m. on Sunday night. There were five major Chinese cities at the time: Beijing, Shanghai Chengdu Wuhan, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chengdu and Chengdu. I was basically receiving a dozen private messages per second. In the end, I was unable to screen the information anymore. It was there, I clicked on it and, if it was worthwhile, I posted it.
People all over the country are sharing their real-time situations. To ensure that more people are not in danger, they went directly to the protest sites and sent me information. Some of their followers were riding bikes close to the Nanjing presidential palace, taking photos, and telling me all about the situation in the area. They asked me to warn everyone. That’s really moving.
It feels like I have become an anchor, sitting in a TV studio and getting endless information from reporters all over the country. On Monday, Hangzhou, for example, I was updated by five to six people on the latest news at once. The police had to clear the area because everyone fled the scene.
On the importance of remaining objective
There are many tweets that embellish truth. They believe it’s the right thing. They believe you need to increase the outrage so there is a revolt. For me, reliable information is essential. We need to understand what’s actually happening, and that’s the most important. If we were doing it for the emotion, then in the end I really would have been part of the “foreign influence,” right?
But, if there’s a news account that can accurately and objectively record what’s going on outside of China, then people living under the Great Firewall will have no doubts. In this situation, where there is a continuous news blackout and it is extremely severe, having an account that can post news from all over the country at a rate of almost one tweet per few seconds is a huge morale booster. Chinese are raised with patriotism and so they don’t want to speak out or oppose anything. During protests, the crowd sang the national anthem and waved the red flag, the national banner. You have to understand that the Chinese people are patriotic. They are patriotic even when they demand things from the government.
So one reason they are willing to pass on information to me is that they know that I am reporting it in a neutral, objective, and truthful way. For other accounts, they are afraid to message them because they might be told in China that they are being exploited by foreign forces.
You can see that they want to voice their opinions, but not too radical. They want to be in the middle. I am that middle point. I will report on the events, but I won’t say anything more. This is probably why I have become the central hub. I have posted a lot and I have become the central hub.
I try to report only on the information I receive but it’s difficult to do this now with so many submissions. To fact-check one thing, I might need videos from multiple angles.
For example, there were rumors last night of a shooting at Wuhan, Chengdu and Xi’an. However, I couldn’t find any videos to verify these rumors so I didn’t post anything. Some Twitter users thought I was deliberately hiding some police faults.
Now we’re in a strange situation. Some people in China believe I’m inciting the violence and others abroad think I’m a big China propagandist. This is a difficult position to be in. If you choose to stand in between, you will be under pressure from both sides. That’s okay.
On dealing with digital chaos and deception
Since I basically had no time to think and was just posting every few seconds, the feed became very dense and very chaotic. I received the same videos from different people. Many videos were sent to me by people who then shared them on WeChat Moments and later returned to me. This post might have been about Beijing. The next was Guangzhou. And the next was Shanghai. It was impossible for people to instantly know if the video they received had been sent, so they had me resend it. Maybe the video was taken at 9: 00, but they sent it to me at almost 12: 00 and thought it was in real time. The fake video I received the most on Sunday night was one in which a police car drove under an overpass and ran over people. I must have watched it 60 or 70 times. It says it was the Sitong Bridge or some other thing every time. However, that footage was not actually taken in China. Many people believe these videos or simply want to believe that something significant has occurred.
Monday morning, I was confronted with a major crisis. Although I don’t know the identity of the person or if it was a Chinese official, they kept sending me false information. There were messages that claimed to have been some events, but they weren’t at the locations they claimed. There were also messages that you could immediately tell were fake. They might have been trying to get me down this way.
There are always people in my private messages who want me to post a call to action, or people who want me to summarize the slogans and post them, or declare what people should do, but I have not crossed that line. I believe that everyone has a mission, and my mission it to report on the events is mine. I would have been the one giving orders if I had joined those [activists] if I was suddenly there. I would be the one who directed them to act if people died in the end. This is not my opinion. I can only do the reporting.
But I think in the end, I will inevitably be the one to blame. Even if it’s not my fault, people will assume that I’m guilty.
If I can maintain my independence until the end, then I will be able to stand there as a torch, a candle, or a torch.
On the mental toll the work is taking
I just finished graduate school, so technically I’m a recent graduate, and I was just dragged into this thing out of nowhere and suddenly found myself with a role in it. I don’t know what to feel. I’m just anxious. I don’t know what might happen to me. I am afraid that one day a car will run towards me as I cross the road. It’s not something I worry about when I turn off my computer. I don’t have the time to think about myself when I’m in front of it.
It’s mostly exhausting. Today, I had to stop. Usually, I just sit there and start, and then I stop. I rarely get up. But today, I began to feel more stressed and was able to receive threats. Because you’ve seen so much and know so many things, you need to be afraid. Today, I am forcing myself to go on vacation. Although it wasn’t much, I did spend a lot of time walking. Today has been amazing. I received a death threat last night. However, I don’t know from where it came. It said, “We already have a map of your home.” It’s best to wait. It was gone in a flash. It has remained a burden on my mind ever since.
Then this morning when I went out to buy cat food, I stood in front of the peephole and checked repeatedly whether someone was standing outside. I kept checking to see if anyone was following me. And after I returned home, there was some weird movement in the stairs, so I put down everything by the door and stood in front of the peephole for 10 minutes, but never saw anyone.
Then I realized that I couldn’t keep this going for too long. I had to make the person go. I thought I would livestream, find them, then ask them to leave. It turned out there wasn’t one. It was a tiny, tiny, very tiny kitten. It was tiny and I didn’t know why, but I brought it home. Now my girlfriend is feeding it. This is the most amazing thing that has happened today. It might be called Urumqi.
I forgot whether it started when Xi Jinping came to power [in 2013], but I’ve been feeling quite aggrieved. For years I have been constantly and repeatedly censoring my thoughts and being cautious so that I can continue to speak.
But suddenly, I don’t feel afraid anymore. I didn’t have the time to think about it and just kept posting. It was as simple as this: I felt that it didn’t matter anymore when they shouted “Xi Jinping, please step down!” This is what I can report. These words are possible for me to type. If they don’t hesitate to say it, I’m not afraid to type it. That’s it. You know what these characters mean when they’re typed out. It’s totally different from other words. It was a moment when I suddenly felt like I was dead, alive, liberated, and aggrieved all at once. It was a very complex feeling.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.