The historic protests in November that signaled the end of zero-Covid rules have started to fade from memory as China declares victory over the pandemic.
However, as time went on, many of the protesters vanished and were taken away by the authorities as they quietly tightened their crackdown on dissidents.
At the so-called White Paper protests, which took place in the dark, tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the restrictive Covid policies. It was an unusual display of opposition to the ruling Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping.
At the time, police rarely made any arrests. Chinese activists claim that scores of those protesters have since been arrested by the police, with one group estimating that there have been over 100 arrests.
Foreign universities and international rights organizations have demanded their release. Additionally, lists naming the alleged detainees were published by activist groups. This includes the protestors in Beijing as well as those in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Nanjing, among other cities.
Inquiries about the detentions have gone unanswered by Chinese authorities. But the BBC was able to confirm the identities of the 12 people detained in Beijing through interviews with friends and attorneys.
Five of them at least have received bail releases. Four women – Cao Zhixin, Li Siqi, Li Yuanjing, and Zhai Dengrui – have been formally detained among those who are still in custody for “picking fights and causing trouble.” Critics claim that this notoriously ambiguous charge, which carries a maximum sentence of five years, is frequently used to stifle dissent.
“They aren’t activists,”
Many of those detained are intelligent; some attended universities in the US and the UK. They include writers, journalists, musicians, teachers, and people who work in the financial sector.
The majority of the detainees in Beijing belonged to a loose group of friends who enjoyed the arts and frequently hung out at book clubs, movie screenings, and discussions.
Numerous them are female, and according to reports, police have asked them if they participate in “feminist activities” or are feminists. In recent years, Chinese authorities have increasingly repressed or censored women’s rights activists.
Their friends insisted that despite the group’s social consciousness and some members’ support for #MeToo activist Xianzi, they were not activists.
“They are just a bunch of kids worried about society,” Not just women’s rights, but also human rights and the rights of the weak, are of interest to my friend. One of the detainees’ friends stated, “This has nothing to do with feminist activities.
Several of the group’s female members had participated in a public vigil held at Beijing’s Liangma River on November 27.
Many unplanned memorial services were held that night in China to honor the victims of an apartment fire in Urumqi that had shocked the nation; many believed the victims were unable to flee due to Covid restrictions, though authorities dispute this.
The vigil evolved into a nonviolent protest, with attendees holding blank sheets of paper as a sign of their dissatisfaction.
The atmosphere has been so oppressive for such a long time. When they went, they didn’t realize they were a part of a movement. Another friend remarked, “They believed it was just a way for them to express their feelings.
They didn’t argue with the police or voice radical viewpoints. Thus, they did not consider it to be serious.
Given how quickly China is known for silencing protests, their friends claim they didn’t do much to protect their identities.
Although it’s unclear what brought police to this particular group of friends, they reportedly used surveillance cameras and facial recognition software to track down protesters and searched the phones of those who had been detained.
One of the prisoners started a Telegram group, which grew from a few users to over 60. And a lot of them made use of phone numbers that were registered in their actual names. Some of them were questioned by police two days later.
One detainee’s boyfriend recalled, “We were talking on the phone when she was being taken away.” “She said she lost contact with some of her friends because they were taken away. She was attempting to delete information from her phone. Before she had finished deleting anything, she was taken away.
According to activists, the arrests seemed to pick up speed in December and January as more friends were taken into custody one by one.
Cao Zhixin sent her friends a video of herself speaking to the camera in advance of being arrested. In case she went missing, it came with instructions to post it online.
In the now-viral video, Ms. Cao said, “What we did was express our feelings in a reasonable way.” “We don’t want to vanish… How much room is left for expressing our emotions if going to a mourning event is illegal?
Condemnation and worry
In a sign of growing international concern, numerous human rights organizations and educational institutions are now pleading for their release. Li Siqi was a former student at the British university Goldsmiths, which told the BBC that it was “deeply concerned” for her welfare.
A spokeswoman for Goldsmiths said, “We condemn in the strongest terms the repression of free speech and urge the Chinese authorities to immediately release all those who are detained in connection with the vigil.”
She added that Zheng Zeguang, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, had received a letter from the university’s warden. The BBC’s inquiries have not received a response from the Chinese embassy.
The arrests of their former students were also confirmed by the Universities of Chicago and New South Wales (UNSW). The resolution of the situation should be done with “due respect for legal principles and for universal human rights,” according to a UNSW statement to the BBC.
Four of the detainees, including Li Siqi, were journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders, who described their arrests as “another chilling message to those who believe that factual information should be reported even when it contradicts the official narrative.”
The incident, according to Human Rights Watch, demonstrated how “young people in China are paying a heavy price for daring to speak out for freedom and human rights,” and they were also threatened by Chinese authorities along with their friends and attorneys who tried to defend the detainees.
According to observers, the arrests are an attempt by the authorities to send a message, or what rights activist Teng Biao refers to as “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.”
He added that the Chinese government’s first thought would be to determine whether “Western hostile forces” were behind the protests. “They want to get who they believe are the leaders and organizers, and those who play a leading role will be severely punished,” he said.
The authorities’ mistrust of the women’s rights movement is also highlighted by the fact that many of the detainees are female and have reportedly been asked about supporting feminist causes.
Several high-profile cases involving female victims of violence and sexual assault have rocked China in recent years. These have sparked uncharacteristically harsh criticism of the government and rallied support for women’s rights.
But as the movement gains momentum, the government’s stance has become more rigid. After it cracked down on a group of women known as the Feminist Five in 2015, activists claim they have faced more online abuse and censorship since then. Recent statements by a branch of the Chinese Communist Party called “extreme feminism” a “malignant tumor.”
Feminist movements have historically been viewed as a threat to the stability of the entire political system, according to Altman Peng, an assistant professor at the University of Warwick who specializes in Chinese gender power relations. “Maintaining’social harmony’ has always been the government’s top priority,” she said.
What lies in store for the protesters is unknown.
Bail recipients are still subject to prosecution. Those who are still being held may be held for a few weeks while prosecutors decide whether to charge them; however, Mr. Teng said that in political cases, detention times may last for months or even years.
So far, their families have kept quiet, and some have severed ties with the detainees’ friends. Unknown to the BBC, one family also fired the attorney they had retained to represent their daughter in court.
Given the tremendous pressure they are experiencing, the families of the detainees are likely to remain silent, according to veteran rights activist Yang Zhanqing.
“The police employ both a carrot and a stick strategy. Authorities would inform the families that if they remained silent, the arrested individuals would be released earlier. They risked losing their jobs and pensions if they didn’t comply.
But increased international scrutiny of the detentions might also be helpful to those who are being held. According to Mr. Yang, pressure from outside sources can result in early release or better treatment for detainees in such politically sensitive cases.
Friends of the detainees are still monitoring the situation and exchanging information out of concern for their own safety.
Many of them are expatriates who chose not to participate in the November protests, but they worry that they may still be singled out due to their friendship with the detainees and efforts to draw attention to their friends’ plight on a global scale.
Recently, they disseminated a message that was relayed to them from prison by one of the prisoners. She attempted to reassure her friends by emphasizing that the prisoners were maintaining their spirits.
She claimed, “[Our interrogators] keep giving us the impression that we are surrounded by friends who have betrayed us or are traitors.” But I still think that we can stand together.
To protect the identities of those who worry about retaliation from authorities, some names have been omitted.