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People watch an outdoor screen showing the live speech of Chinese President Xi Jinping during the opening session of the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, on Oct. 16.STR/AFP/Getty Images

Across Beijing this week, the face of Chinese President Xi Jinping has been gazing out from TV screens and the front pages of state-controlled newspapers, after he opened a key Communist Party Congress expected to confirm him as leader for an unprecedented third term.

For residents somehow unaware that this political assembly is taking place, there are plenty of other clues: Tighter COVID-19 restrictions have been introduced, TV shows have been cancelled and some delivery companies are no longer servicing the capital, apparently out of fear of transmitting infection.

Even in other cities, people can tell something big is going on. Frank Tsai, the Shanghai-based founder of consulting firm China Crossroads, said: “We’re definitely feeling the party congress on the ground here.”

He said bars were ordered to close ahead of the opening of the meeting, and numerous buildings and estates were locked down over just a handful of COVID-19 cases, with local officials keen to avoid “any slight risk of an outbreak that would embarrass the party.”

Online, the congress and Mr. Xi himself are inescapable, dominating trending topics on social media. Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, was an endless stream of red after Mr. Xi gave a speech Sunday extolling the government’s achievements of the past five years. Local officials, state media journalists and nationalist influencers tripped over each other to heap praise on the man, while any alternative viewpoints were tightly censored.

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Escaping this propaganda and censorship onslaught can be difficult. VPN services, the primary means of bypassing the Great Firewall, China’s vast online censorship and surveillance apparatus, have largely ground to a halt in recent days, with group chats filling with messages asking, “Does anyone know of a ladder that’s still working?”

Even supporters have been caught up in the harmonization of opinion. Hu Xijin, the influential former editor of the Global Times state newspaper, saw one of his posts restricted after he ran afoul of Weibo’s long-standing sensitivities around using Mr. Xi’s full name.

That pales in comparison, however, to the intense censorship of posts about a small but audacious protest in the heart of the capital last week. After an unidentified person unfurled banners over the Sitong Bridge calling for an end to COVID-19 restrictions and Mr. Xi’s ouster, any related keywords were blacked out, including, for a time, even “Beijing.”

But that has not stopped the message from spreading, with sympathetic posts popping up briefly in several other Chinese cities, according to photos posted online. Chinese students overseas have also posted the Sitong Bridge demands at various universities, including schools in Vancouver and Toronto.

Smoke rises as a banner with a protest message hangs off the Sitong Bridge in Beijing, on Oct. 13.SOCIAL MEDIA/Reuters

While public dissent in China is still rare, the protest last week was indicative of growing dissatisfaction with COVID-19 controls, which have become increasingly disruptive and stand in stark contrast to measures in the rest of Asia, which has now joined Europe and North America in opening up.

Mr. Tsai, the Shanghai analyst, said that “as more and more cities get locked down, opposition will increase until there is some inflection point where the party cannot assume (or rouse) support for zero-COVID any more.” He added that Mr. Xi’s speech on Sunday repeated well-worn rhetoric on COVID-19 but provided some flexibility for relaxing rules in the future – though not any time soon.

As Mr. Xi addressed the country, state media highlighted people of all stripes gathering before big public screens, even in Chinese-controlled Tibet, where Buddhist monks were shown watching in rooms adorned with national flags and portraits of Mr. Xi and other top leaders.

In Hong Kong, pro-Beijing politicians posted photos of themselves doing the same, with one political group organizing an online viewing party that saw attendees all set their Zoom backgrounds to Communist Party red.

“We should earnestly study the spirit of the Twentieth National Congress,” Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee wrote on Facebook, alongside a photo of himself watching Mr. Xi’s speech, adding that the city was ready “to contribute to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!”

Speaking Monday, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said leaders from around the world “have sent messages and letters to President Xi Jinping” praising his speech “and expressed confidence that under the leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, China will successfully realize its national rejuvenation.”

Bad news, such as ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks across the country – particularly in the Xinjiang region’s capital, Urumqi – has been tightly suppressed. Nothing can be allowed to distract from Mr. Xi’s coronation. Officials with the National Bureau of Statistics of China announced they were delaying the release of key economic data. The figures were expected to show a slowdown in growth and other negative impacts of the country’s draconian pandemic restrictions, just days after Mr. Xi doubled down on his tough zero-COVID approach.

Such sensitivity has reached beyond China’s borders. After a group of Hong Kongers staged a protest Sunday outside the Chinese consulate in the British city of Manchester, diplomatic staff tore their posters down and brawled with the demonstrators, briefly dragging one inside the grounds of the mission itself.

A man is pulled at the gate of the Chinese consulate during a demonstration against Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Manchester, Britain, on Oct. 16.MATTHEW LEUNG/THE CHASER NEWS/Reuters

A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Liz Truss said the incident was “deeply concerning,” and lawmakers across the political spectrum called for an investigation, with some saying the Manchester consul-general, Zheng Xiyuan, should be expelled.

In a statement to the BBC, the consulate said the protest – which took place on public property outside the mission – “would not be tolerated or accepted” by any country and denounced the demonstrators as “a small batch of Hong Kong independence advocates.”

With a file from Alexandra Li.