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The Rise of ‘Teacher Li’: How a Cartoon Cat Is Defying Beijing’s Censorship

Any content that is scrubbed from the Chinese internet often finds its way to 'Teacher Li's' account.
Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: June 10, 2024
The account, known as "Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher," on X, offers a flood of real-time updates, protest footage, police movements, and news of arrests, all sourced from ordinary citizens. (Image: Vision Times/DALL-E)

In November 2022, as anti-lockdown protests erupted across many of China’s cities, a peculiar source of information captivated the world: a mysterious X account (formerly Twitter) managed by a cartoon cat. 

The account, known as “Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher,” offered a flood of real-time updates, protest footage, police movements, and news of arrests, all sourced from ordinary citizens. But what made the account particularly noteworthy was how it was operated by a Chinese student living abroad.

The people’s hero

Li Ying, an art student living in Italy, has become an indispensable chronicler of information that Beijing deems “politically sensitive.” His X account looks into the repressive nature of Xi Jinping’s China — offering a glimpse into how the government wields an iron grip over what’s allowed to circulate on the internet. From major protests to small acts of dissent, corruption, and crime, any content that is scrubbed from the Chinese internet often finds its way to Teacher Li’s account. 

But the role has earned him the ire of Chinese authorities, who are reportedly harassing him, his friends, family, and followers in a coordinated intimidation campaign.

Li’s journey into activism began accidentally. Initially, he had no interest in politics and mainly wrote and posted love stories on Weibo, a popular microblogging and social media platform in China. But while studying in Italy, Li said he became desperate to understand the situation in his hometown amid unrelenting “zero-COVID” lockdowns. 

People hold sheets of blank paper and flowers in protest of COVID restriction in mainland as police setup cordon during a vigil in the central district on November 28, 2022 in Hong Kong, China. Protesters took to the streets in multiple Chinese cities after a deadly apartment fire in Xinjiang province sparked a national outcry as many blamed COVID restrictions for the deaths. (Image: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

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Shocked by the suffering and extreme measures he discovered during the lockdowns, he began sharing these stories on Weibo. Though censors quickly noticed and blocked his account, this only inspired Li to engage in a cat-and-mouse game by creating 53 new accounts before eventually migrating over to Twitter (now X).

On X, Li found a platform free from Chinese censors but still accessible in China through virtual private networks (VPNs). His following grew exponentially, especially during the White Paper protests against the country’s “zero-COVID” policies in late 2022. 

As his account became a vital clearinghouse for protest information, submissions began pouring in from all over the world. This surge in activity, however, also led to online death threats and increased scrutiny from Chinese authorities. On one occasion, officers even visited Li’s parents’ home to question them about their son’s whereabouts, he said.

Bringing down the hammer

But Li’s resolve to continue his work was only strengthened when he discovered that all his bank accounts in China had been frozen. This action made it clear that he could never return to his homeland, he told BBC. Li also recounted how authorities have targeted him through various other means.

On one occasion, police visited a company where Li had previously ordered art supplies to demand his shipping information in Italy. He also received strange calls asking for his current address from a suspicious European delivery service, despite not having placed any new orders. His former address and phone number were shared on WeChat (a popular messaging app in China), and a stranger even appeared at his old home address under the guise of having a “business proposal.”

Students and local people gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 14, 1989 after an over-night hunger strike as part of the mass pro-democracy protest against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). (Image: CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP via Getty Images)

These ambiguous incidents are part of a broader strategy to instill “an ever-present fear of persecution and distrust among targets,” said Laura Harth, campaign director for rights group Safeguard Defenders. Beijing also allegedly collaborates with middlemen like Chinese businessmen abroad to deny direct involvement and create a chilling environment for dissidents. 

“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. Wang noted that the tactic stems from those who think that helping the authorities will be “good for [their] business.” 

Transnational repression

In recent years, reports of Chinese espionage and transnational repression have been growing in the West, and many of Li’s experiences align with documented tactics used by Beijing to pressure dissidents abroad. According to several rights groups and activists, these tactics typically include harassment, surveillance, and even attempts to solicit information through third parties.

In recent months, the pressure on Li has intensified. Authorities have increasingly surveyed and questioned his parents, with visits occurring daily at one point, BBC reports. School officials where his parents used to work have also pressured them to persuade Li to stop his activities. Even some followers on X have reported being interrogated, with some shown long lists of names to intimidate them. Despite feeling guilty for the trouble his followers face, Li continues his work undeterred.

Dahua Technology, Hikvision, and iFlytek are known to supply surveillance tech that is being used to monitor Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

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The harassment extends to digital platforms, with anonymous accounts flooding his inbox with spam, including crude cartoons of his parents coupled with disturbing images. This online abuse reached a peak around the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4 — a sensitive topic for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Personal information about Li and his parents, including their photos, has also been shared on a website promoted by anonymous X accounts. These practices aim to sow distrust among his followers, notes Li.

Despite the personal toll and mental strain, including frequent moves within Italy and isolation from steady employment, Li remains resolute. By relying on online donations and earnings from his YouTube and X accounts, Li has said he will continue to do his duty in exposing the CCP’s inner workings. 

Li also plans to expand his operations by recruiting others to join his mission and post new content in English to broaden his influence. He believes the Chinese government fears international exposure of their suppression and censorship tactics, and is determined to continue his fight.

“Until they find me and pull me back to China, or even kidnap me, I will continue doing what I’m doing.”