The Persecution of Teacher Li, who is not your teacher

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium


Chapter XXII (supplement)


Safeguard Defenders 保護衛士 describes itself as ‘a human rights NGO founded in late 2016 that undertakes and supports local field activities that contribute to the protection of basic rights, promotes the rule of law, and enhances the ability of local civil society and human rights defenders in some of the most hostile environments in Asia.’

On 2 May 2024, Safeguard Defenders published an investigation into Beijing’s ongoing attacks on and attempts to silence Li Ying 李穎, an artist based in Milan, Italy. Since May 2020, Li’s Twitter/X account — Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher 李老師不是你老師, aka @whyyoutouzhele — has been a globally popular independent sorting house for on-the-ground news from China.


On 18 December 2023, we featured an interview that Li Yuan 袁莉 conducted with Li Ying 李穎, ‘Teacher Li’ 李老師不是你老師 as part of her Chinese-Language podcast series Who Gets It, on the first anniversary of the November 2022 White Page Protests in China.

As Li Yuan wrote in a column about her conversation with Teacher Li:

Mr. Li is among a generation of young Chinese activists who stood up to their government and Mr. Xi out of a sense of justice and dignity. They are not professional revolutionaries but accidental activists who felt compelled to speak out when Mr. Xi was turning their country into a giant jail and their future into a black hole.

‘I Have No Future’: China’s Rebel Influencer Is Still Paying a Price, The New York Times, 12 December 2023

With Li Yuan’s kind permission, we included an edited translation of her conversation with Teacher Li as a supplementary section to Fear, Fury & Protest — three years of viral alarm, which is part of the series  Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.

‘It’s only the end of the beginning’ — Teacher Li on Blank Pages, Li Keqiang, Snowflakes & Monsters should be read in conjunction with:

Taken together, this material offers an overview of the protests in China, as well as some of the international reactions to them, in late 2022.

We also recommend Teacher Li’s Chinese-language YouTube channel, in particular his discussion of politics-induced depression, his interview with an official internet content moderator and his reflections on the White Page Protests. See:

And, of course, we also recommend Teacher Li’s X/ Twitter account:


We are grateful to Safeguard Defenders for permission to reproduce their account of the persecution of Teacher Li. It is included as a Supplement to Chapter XXII of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.


The Chinese subtitle of this material — 圍追堵截 wéi zhuī dǔ jié, or ‘encirclement, pursuit, obstruction and interception’ — is a modern four-character expression that comes from On Tactics Against Japanese Imperialism, a speech Mao Zedong made at a key meeting of the Communist Party’s politburo at Wayaobu 瓦窯堡, northern Shaanxi province, in December 1935. In it, Mao said that:

For twelve months we were under daily reconnaissance and bombing from the skies by scores of planes, while on land we were encircled and pursued, obstructed and intercepted by a huge force of several hundred thousand men, and we encountered untold difficulties and dangers on the way; yet by using our two legs we swept across a distance of more than twenty thousand li through the length and breadth of eleven provinces. Let us ask, has history ever known a long march to equal ours? No, never. The Long March is a manifesto.


Today, 圍追堵截 wéi zhuī dǔ jié is used to describe the efforts of the authorities — the police, militia and private security firms — to intimidate and harass citizens who want to protect their rights in the face of official interference and injustice, or those who want to petition the government. In Internet usage the expression means ‘besiege and intercept’, be it in regard to a user, a site, or data.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
16 May 2024


Related Material:


Teacher Li, ‘We Don’t Need No Thought Control’: Pink Floyd on the streets of Leshan, Sichuan province, X/ Twitter, 15 May 2024

What is happening to me is what happens to every individual in China who tries to fight for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But this will not be the end.

In the meantime, I hope people in democratic societies can understand. Thanks to China’s advanced Internet technology, digital payment systems and its long-standing culture of patriotism, the Chinese government is able to spread their influence in Chinese communities all over the world, just like it is for me in Italy when they are looking for me.

Teacher Li


Teacher Li —

a story of transnational repression


Teacher Li is not your teacher has become a household name for many in the China-watcher space. Having risen to prominence during the White Paper movement in Fall 2022, he has become a trusted social media influencer for the voiceless in China.

All this comes at a dire price for the Carrara fine arts graduate living in Italy, as the Chinese authorities spare no effort to try and shut him down. While he has occasionally spoken about aspects of the transnational repression efforts he faces, he has never publicly shared the entire story of the daily instances of threats, harassment, and pressure to return he and those around him face.

One of the main reasons refraining him from doing so is his adamant refusal to contribute to the climate of fear the CCP wishes to create in concerned communities both in- and outside of China. The chilling effect of such a climate became all too evident when Li published a rare warning to his X followers on February 25, 2024, following a growing series of notices from various followers across China that they had been questioned by public security authorities and urged to unfollow his account. As CNN reported on March 18, the warning led to a loss of about 200,000 followers in a mere couple of days.

Today, as personalized attacks against his parents become more incessant, Li has agreed to share the full extent of the transnational repression exerted by PRC authorities and their proxies against him.

Some details have been omitted to protect the identity of other vulnerable individuals.

It is hoped that by rendering his account public, democratic authorities will step up immediate and adequate measures to alleviate the pressure felt by Li and other regime dissidents. The climate of fear in which the CCP forces them to live even when abroad can only be countered by consistent, coordinated and concrete actions.

Actions that necessitate a whole-of-government response — including political, law enforcement and judicial action — but also dedicated psychological and social support to ensure targeted communities and individuals can build up their resilience and fully exercise the fundamental freedoms our democratic societies are bound to defend.

The latter is of particular importance in an environment where many of the tactics employed — as in Li’s story — are not easily or directly attributable to a single actor. Taken together, these tactics aim to instill fear and paranoia in its victims and their environments, leading many — if not most — to resign to silence their dissent. This is not a mere corollary effect of the PRC’s transnational repression activities, but its precise aim.

Note: Li acts as an independent individual. Safeguard Defenders is merely reporting his story. We do not have any collaborative or financial ties to one another.

Teacher Li — a Twitter sensation

A New York Times report from December 12, 2023, perfectly sums up Li’s significance as a trusted voice for those that cannot speak up themselves and the rare window he provides into the discontent and daily small acts of resistance mounted by individuals inside China:

“In November 2022, Li Ying was a painter and art school graduate in Milan, living in a state of sadness, fear and despair. China’s strict pandemic policies had kept him from seeing his parents for three years, and he was unsure where his country was heading.

In China, after enduring endless Covid tests, quarantines and lockdowns, people staged the most widespread protests the country had seen in decades, many holding roughly letter-size paper to demonstrate defiance against censorship and tyranny, in what has been called the White Paper movement.

Then Mr. Li did something that he never anticipated would become so significant: He turned his Twitter account into an information clearinghouse. People inside China sent him photos, videos and other witness accounts, at times more than a dozen per second, that would otherwise be censored on the Chinese internet. He used Twitter, which is banned in China, to broadcast them to the world. The avatar on Mr. Li’s account, his drawing of a cat that is both cute and menacing, became famous.

His following on the platform swelled by 500,000 in a matter of weeks. To the Chinese state, he was a troublemaker. To some Chinese, he was a superhero who stood up to their authoritarian government and their iron-fisted leader, Xi Jinping.

[…] He still uses his account on Twitter, now X, as a one-person news hub that informs the Chinese public of news they don’t receive from the heavily censored media and internet: protests, the toll of an economic downturn and the public mourning of a former premier. […] In his inbox on X, people in China send him many messages every day. Last year most of them were complaints that they were in lockdown or quarantine and had no food, no water, no heat. This year, he said, most messages were about protests of all kinds. […]

His following on X has doubled to 1.4 million from a year ago. […] His account had more than 300 million views from Oct. 15 to Nov. 1, he said.”

His following and the trust of those that contribute to his account are a clear thorn in the eyes of a regime keenly engaged in censoring any independent reporting on what is actually happening inside China, even more so when that reality is starkly different from the propaganda narratives the CCP seeks to send around the world.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for those authorities to deploy their transnational repression toolkit against Li.

Control the parents

Prior to his activity on X, Li was active on Weibo. After the repeated banning of his (up to 53 [accounts]), in mid-2022 he switched to Twitter and started reposting information relayed to him by Chinese netizens during the harsh COVID lockdowns.

As early as September 2022, when he shared information on a Lhasa (Tibet) protest against pandemic measures, some of his friends in China are questioned by public security authorities eager to learn more about his identity.

Things escalate as protests mount across the country in November 2022. People flock to his account, making it a go-to source on the White Paper movement shaking the country. Chinese netizens increasingly share real-time information, videos and images of developments on the ground, which he faithfully shares on his account.

Overnight, his following on X grows from 170,000 to 780,000.  His account, tweets and videos also get picked up by international media, with reporting featuring his interviews on CNN, Reuters, Bloomberg, Il Foglio, France24, La Repubblica and others.

On November 28, 2022, his identity is doxed for the first time by anonymous accounts online. It wouldn’t be the last time. Over the past years, personal details such as his address in Italy and pictures of his passport have been leaked online. Some of the anonymous X accounts involved in such activities have also sent him repeated death threats or engaged in discrediting operations.

It is hard to believe it a mere coincidence that on that very same November 28th, State Security authorities pay their first visit to his parent’s house in Fuyang City (Anhui Province). Through to mid-December 2022, MSS officials, Anhui Public Security officials and the Fuyang police chief visit his parents every single day with questions centering on his current whereabouts and false allegations around foreign funding or membership of a foreign anti-China organization, etc.

When questioning yields little results, they move to intimidate his parents and request they exercise pressure on Li to delete his social media account, stop publishing any further content and immediately return to China. If not, in a typical collective punishment measure, they would move to “block their pensions”.

To add pressure to their requests, for a subsequent period of time, every one of his social media posts is matched by a visit by two or more officials to his parents’ house.

The passport conundrum

Around the same time, Li starts encountering suspicious activities in Italy that put him on high alert.

Ever an artist, he ordered his usual painting supplies from a firm in Wenzhou. Shortly after, on December 12, 2022, he receives repeated calls from someone claiming to have a GLOVO delivery for him and insisting he provide his home address. Li is baffled. He didn’t order anything from GLOVO or has never even used the service. On December 15, his suspicions grow as the Wenzhou firm informs him two public security officials had visited and obtained the shipping data he had provided.

Uncertain of the significance of the events, Li grows increasingly wary of the prospects of ever being able to return to China safely. He notes with concern that his passport is set to expire in August 2023 but is afraid to show his face at the PRC Consulate.

An acquaintance in the overseas Chinese community tells him not to worry and directs him to the Associazione cinese a Milano (米兰华侨华人工商会) run by the Milan Overseas Chinese Labor Chamber of Commerce (米兰华侨华人工商会会), that simultaneously acts as a Chinese Aid Center listed by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council, a consular assistance service point, a Wenzhou Overseas Chinese Affairs “Global Link” contact point, and a Wenzhou Public Security Bureau’s “Online Overseas Police” Contact Point in Northern Italy (温州公安局意大利北部“警侨在线”联络点).

Li follows the advice and turns to the association for a passport renewal request on February 18, 2023. However, as a precautionary measure, he makes sure to list a prior address of residence.

One week later, on February 25th, his parents tell him the local Procurator paid them a visit and asked them to convey the promise that “his passport’s expiration ought not to be an issue” and that “he could return home at any time if only he stopped his online activities”. If he did not… “they would start to apply pressure”.

Li is all too aware of the empty promises for a safe return made to human rights defenders or dissidents, and is more convinced than ever that it would be anything but safe for him to do so.

Fast-forward to mid-March: a former roommate is paid a visit at the home they previously shared by an individual named Wang Songqiang. The address is the one listed by Li on his passport renewal request. Wang Songqiang obtains his WeChat contact details and reaches out to Li “to discuss a joint business opportunity”. Wang insists on organizing a meeting but cancels the conversation after Li politely but firmly declines the invite.

Wang Songqiang is the Milan Executive President of the Associazione Culturale della Comunità cinese di Fujian in Italia based in Prato, Tuscany. Notably, the Associazione Culturale della Comunità cinese di Fujian in Italia hosted the Fuzhou Overseas Chinese Police Service Center, launched on March 31, 2022.

Wang further acts as a Chief Executive President of the Italian Fujian Overseas Chinese Business Federation, and as an executive member of the Milan Overseas Chinese Entrepreneurs Association. He further is frequently pictured in events of other United Front associations across Northern Italy that have been linked to Chinese public security/court/procuratorate liaison services, and shares appointments in associations with members from the above-mentioned Associazione cinese a Milano.

That same month, Li’s former address and phone number are published on WeChat. Naturally spooked, he starts moving frequently from that moment on.

Administrative measures

On April 12, 2023, he finds all his Chinese accounts have been frozen. This includes his bank cards, AliPay, WeChat Pay, etc. When he inquires as to the reasons, his bank informs him that public security authorities from various parts of the country had requested his personal information more than 30 times and that “he must have a serious problem”.

In the meantime, surveillance cameras are installed outside his parents’ house. At this point, they only receive occasional visits by authorities but are placed under constant surveillance. When his father travels to Beijing for a medical check-up in August, public security officials visit his home to ask his mother about his whereabouts and the motive for his absence from the house.

In May 2023, a pro-democracy acquaintance in Milan informs Li that inquiries on his whereabouts have been ongoing in the local Chinese church with the accusation he had “played on the sentiments of a woman and defrauded her”. Similar discrediting allegations persistently flood social media.

Li becomes increasingly despondent as to the likelihood of seeing his passport renewed and publicly laments the difficulty he faces. He is soon made aware that individuals expressing their sympathies are called in for questioning. As Li starts contemplating alternative solutions, he suddenly receives word from the Associazione cinese a Milano that his passport is ready for pick-up. Li is convinced the passport release was a response to his public expression of the issues faced and the attention that might bring to his case.

His relief is short-lived: one month later, the same social media account that previously doxed his old home address and called on local Chinese students to “go find him”, publishes pictures of his old and new passport, as well as the signed passport renewal request.

Long-arm policing… the police

In June 2023, Giulia Pompili at Italian outlet Il Foglio publishes an article on the GLOVO incident. Sincerely concerned for his safety, Italian law enforcement authorities reach out to Li and invite him for a meeting, which takes place in the presence of an acquaintance of Li and Safeguard Defenders’ Laura Harth.

Months later, word reaches Li that the acquaintance — with whom he has no further contact — had been held outside the bounds of any judicial procedures for about 20 days by State Security authorities after a family visit in China. Interrogations centered around Li’s whereabouts and habits, any future actions he might have planned, and allegations of foreign funding. Furthermore, the MSS was aware of the police deposition that had taken place earlier that year, and obtained personal contact information for the officer and all others present.

Before he was released to return to Italy, the acquaintance was allegedly tasked with collecting and relaying information on the “Italian situation” to the Chinese authorities.

One threat after another

Li frequently receives unveiled threats as to the Chinese authorities’ intentions. While he is not able to verify their veracity, they are often eerily synchronized to real-life events taking place shortly after.

Among those threats the intent to “mobilize, intimidate, and pressure his family to ensure that he returns”. Alternatively, “to form a special team composed of public security and state security elements to go to Italy if necessary, and take coercive measures as the situation requires to arrest him and return him to China.”

Soon, Li receives reports from individuals to whom he’s had a loose connection in the past that they’ve been interrogated on their relation with him and any information they could provide as to his life and habits in Italy, such as food and restaurant preferences.

Another one threatens that any electronic communications may be monitored. A threat that soon materializes as during Winter of 2023-2024, Li starts receiving a growing number of messages by X followers that they have been questioned by public security authorities and urged to unfollow him.

Li obtains a sample of such a conversation (edited for security reasons):

–    Is this XX?
–    Yes.
–    This is the police from YZ. We noted that you started following someone on Twitter or some other platform a while ago?
–    Erm…?
–    It’s about that. You follow that person but they have made some false statements on the platform. So now we are calling everyone who followed this person to inform them to unfollow. We are worried there might be some punishment in the future and you might be seen as a supporter…
–    Ok, I guess you are talking about Teacher Li, right?
–    Yes, that’s right.
–    Ok, I see.
–    Just unfollow him on the platform. If you do so, there shouldn’t be any further issues. But you should disassociate from him.
–    Ok, got it. Thanks.
–    Just take care of that and you’ll be fine.

After receiving over a hundred notifications of targeted followers, on February 25, 2024, Li posts a warning on X, leading to a loss of about 200,000 followers in a couple of days. The surveillance of social media activities on foreign platforms is not a novelty for PRC authorities as a leaked old list of well over 20,000 critical social media accounts and their personal Chinese data shows.

In March-April of this year, threats against his parents become more prominent again, with one account threatening his parents will be detained if he does not return to China voluntarily and warning of repercussions if he were to share the messages received. Simultaneously, deeply insulting memes and comments about his parents are posted across social media accounts and in response to Li’s posts.

Li’s own words

Li shared the following comment with us:

Every morning I wake up and my tweets are filled with hundreds of replies by bot accounts. At first, they used words to insult and spread rumors about my parents. Now, they have started drawing pornographic pictures about my parents.

Interestingly, when I used Xi Jinping’s picture and name to add to my tweets as a test, the attacks disappeared and instead, the bot accounts started to praise me.

To be honest, everything I’ve experienced on the Internet over the past year and a half, or what I experienced in Italy, was expected. I understand that this is the inevitable price of being a Chinese dissident fighting for freedom of speech and freedom of the press for the Chinese people.

But I was shocked and baffled by the Chinese government’s use of such nasty ways and behaviors, which completely exceeded my perception of their bottom line. It also showed me how terrified they are about freedom of the press.

At the same time, I hope that what happened to me reminds everyone of what others are facing.

What is happening to me is what happens to every individual in China who tries to fight for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But this will not be the end.

In the meantime, I hope people in democratic societies can understand. Thanks to China’s advanced Internet technology, digital payment systems and its long-standing culture of patriotism, the Chinese government is able to spread their influence in Chinese communities all over the world, just like it is for me in Italy when they are looking for me.

Local governments may not even notice much of this, but it is the one thing they really need to be aware of.