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.
When the government abruptly ended the Covid policy last December, Mr. Li and other young activists faced a question: Was their protest a moment in history, or a footnote?
A year later, Mr. Li was clear in his answer. “the White Paper movement,” he told me in an interview, “was not the end, but the beginning of something.”
His journey from a young artist into a rebel influencer has brought fear, guilt, courage and hope. It’s one that has become familiar to many of his peers.
At 31, 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.
They are living with the consequences, some inside China and some outside. They were arrested, harassed by the police or pushed into exile fearing threats by the authorities. They continued their activism as many more joined in their resistance.
Mr. Li was, and is, a reluctant hero. A year later, he has paid a high personal cost. At times he cried and thought about quitting. But the punishments from the Chinese state kept piling on. He had no way back so he has pushed forward.
It is too risky for him to return to China. The police harass his parents regularly. All his Chinese accounts relating to banking, payments and even games have been frozen. He lost his only source of income in Milan, where he studied and lived since 2015; he said it was because the company he partnered with got a letter from the Chinese embassy. He has received death threats, almost on a weekly basis. A man showed up at his apartment, an address he said he had shared only with the Chinese consulate. Mr. Li has moved four times in the past year to stay safe.
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.
X and most other websites popular in the rest of the world are blocked in China. To gain access to them, some Chinese use software such as virtual private networks to scale what’s called the Great Firewall. They then share screenshots and download PDF, audio and video files to people who lack access.
“People tell me all the time, ‘Thank you for letting me know that so much is happening in China,’ ” Mr. Li said. He spends at least five to six hours a day on X. He seldom gets out of his Milan apartment and seldom takes a day off. He cooks most of his meals. On the busiest news days, he orders McDonald’s.
He has persisted, he said, mostly out of his love for his homeland and its people. “I’m not surprised by anything that happens in China,” he added. “I understand why people there act the way they do.”
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.
Since last year’s demonstrations, Chinese have held up those sheets of paper when protesting economic issues like insufficient pensions, inadequate home heating and delays in the delivery of apartments they had paid for.
“The biggest change is that after the White Paper movement, the Chinese began to realize that we have the right to fight for what we want,” Mr. Li said. “I think this is a big change.”
“The same goes for speech control,” he said. He believes that “cracks” have appeared in the Great Firewall.
One sign of that, he said, is that his following on X has doubled to 1.4 million from a year ago. It could mean more Chinese are using VPNs, or that more people care about what’s going on in the country.
Even during last year’s protests, he said, there weren’t a lot of excessively dissenting comments online. But a year later, when a former premier died, he said, people on the Chinese internet were cursing Mr. Xi, using euphemisms to try to evade censors.
“It seems like people’s mental state, or the overall emotional state, has undergone a significant shift,” he said.
A large following on X has brought Mr. Li little income. His account had more than 300 million views from Oct. 15 to Nov. 1, he said, earning him $280. To make a living, he started a YouTube channel in July, posting videos commenting on Chinese current affairs. Revenue from ads and donations bring him little over $3,000 a month on average, enough to feed himself and his two cats, he said.
He might be viewed as a hero to some people in China but in real life, he joked, he’s a loser. He believes that the Chinese police would like to take him back to the country.
He’s preparing himself psychologically for the possibility that he could be murdered. “At any moment, boom, a few people break in,” and he would become a person who “jumped off the building,” or “suffered from severe depression and committed suicide,” he said.
“I’m a person without a future,” he told me repeatedly.
He does hope for a time when he can pick up his brushes and continue painting, something he has not had time to do because of his social media activism. He encouraged more people to start news accounts. A few are emerging but are far less influential.
“I can’t tell whether China can become a democratic nation or a more liberal, more open society,” he said. “For each Chinese citizen, the question we might need to ask ourselves is whether we desire such a society and what we are willing to contribute for it.”
“I think this is a question for everyone,” he said.