HONG KONG — Thousands of posters condemning China’s top leader have appeared on college campuses in New York, Barcelona, Stockholm, Tokyo and elsewhere over the past few days as Chinese students and dissidents spread the message of a lone protester in China.
The posters — paper pasted onto just about everything — have one common theme: Oust the “despotic traitor,” Xi Jinping.
Those words first appeared in Beijing on Oct. 13. As Mr. Xi, China’s top leader, was expected to coast to a third term during the Communist Party congress, someone whose identity has not been confirmed, managed to hang a banner on a busy bridge calling for Mr. Xi’s dismissal. On Sunday, that third term was confirmed.
The protest slogans on the banner also included “Elections, Not Dictatorship” and “Citizens, Not Flunkies.”
The appearance of such strong dissent before an important Communist Party meeting, in a heavily policed city, astonished the whole country. The protester was taken away by police, and online discussions were quickly censored.
Dissidents, however, then found ways to amplify the message overseas. The protest slogans on the Beijing bridge have popped up on bulletin boards, poles and bus stations at more than 200 colleges across at least 20 countries, as many international Chinese students said they were saluting the protester and fighting Mr. Xi’s autocracy.
“I used to be surrounded by a deep powerlessness over political resistance, but the Beijing protester inspired me, showing there are ways to fight,” said Xintong Zhang, 24, a Chinese student at the University of Toronto, who sobbed when seeing the protester’s banner on social media. She later put up dozens of “Dictator Out” posters around campus at dawn.
Compared with other autocracies such as Russia, Iran and Myanmar, China is regarded by many human rights organizations as even less hospitable to free speech and government protest. Under Mr. Xi, opposition and criticism is heavily suppressed with a mix of state security, online censorship and the threat of severe punishment. No independent media and civil society organizations remain 10 years into his rule. Freedom House, a U.S. pro-democracy group, has ranked China last in internet freedom for eight consecutive years.
Ms. Zhang said many Chinese — especially her peers, who started high school after Mr. Xi came to power — did not know how to fight authoritarianism whether at home or abroad.
“Now we have the Beijing protester, and I can look up to him,” she said. “I know I should speak out and how to do it.”
Some of the new activists are concerned that even outside China, there are risks that come with opposing the Chinese government.
A student at the University of Texas at Austin who posted anti-Xi posters on campus said that he was worried about being targeted and harassed by nationalist Chinese students. The student, who is surnamed Zhou, declined to be identified by his full name, citing the same reason.
Ms. Zhang said she worried about being harassed by other Chinese students, assuming the majority were nationalists. As a result, she wore a mask when putting up posters to avoid being identified.
She found most of her posters had been torn down and some had been left half hanging from bulletin boards. “I felt heartbroken but then relieved,” she said. “It’s okay if they tore down my posters as long as I keep posting until the party congress finishes.”
The overseas anti-Xi slogans gained traction after they were collected and shared by pro-democracy Instagram accounts run by anonymous volunteers, mostly Chinese citizens living abroad.
“A brave man should have an echo,” one of the groups, Citizens Daily CN, posted on Instagram.