BRADLEY JAMES CAVANAGH WRITES — In central Shanghai, a two-story building has been plastered with images of Xi Jinping, as if to protect it, and – through this attempted power of symbolism – granted a short reprieve from demolition. Pictures taken of this building went viral on social media, prompting a nationwide dialogue about meaning of this act of protest.

Demolitions of these hastily built structures are common in China. In Shanghai, the number of tall buildings shot up 583% in the first decade of the 2000s alone. Since all land in China technically belongs to the state, the process of demolishing buildings is a quick and ruthless one. Done with little fanfare or litigation, most residents give into developer’s compensation offers, and holdouts to this process are dubbed “Nail buildings.”

Chinese academic Chen Daoyin commented that “[the property owners] were trying to play with others’ fear by demonstrating the symbol of a mighty ruling power.” Chen also commented that “nail property” owners 10 years ago would have turned to the mainland’s constitution or civil laws to make their protests, but now, in a time where some argue a cult of personality has developed around the General Secretary, these “nail property” owners appeared to be turning to Xi Jinping for inspiration over such disputes.

“Law now has been replaced by a man,” Chen said, “It reflects a change of social mentality.”

The Xi poster stunt was a small act of defiance, designed to delay, rather than protect against redevelopment. The posters sparked debate and speculation about the past as well.

Such an act of defiance reminded Hong Kong-based political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu of an earlier age. During the Cultural Revolution, people covered ancient relics with images of Chairman Mao to save them from destruction from Red Guard bands.

In the eyes of zealous youth of the Cultural Revolution, the act of defacing Mao’s image was even more blasphemous than destroying cultural treasures. About the Xi poster stunt, Lau said “What the owner of this property is doing is just another rendition of the same old tune. It is a backward move ­ideologically.”

Whether this incident was a sharp statement, or an appeal to higher powers, it seems unlikely Xi’s image will save this “nail building.” The next day, police tore the posters down.