China’s zero-Covid protesters joined a vigil in Beijing. Then their lives were turned upside down

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When one by one, the friends of a young woman living in Beijing began disappearing — detained by the police after attending a vigil together weeks earlier — she felt sure that her time was nearing.

“As I record this video, four of my friends have already been taken away,” the woman, age 26, said, speaking clearly into the camera in a video recording from late December obtained by CNN.

“I entrusted some friends of mine with making this video public after my disappearance. In other words, when you see this video, I have been taken away by the police for a while.”

The woman — a recent graduate who is an editor at a publishing house — is among eight people, mainly young, female professionals in the same extended social circle, that CNN has learned have been quietly detained by authorities in the weeks following a peaceful protest in the Chinese capital on November 27.

That protest was one of many that broke out in major cities across the country in an unprecedented showing of discontent with China’s now-dismantled zero-Covid controls.

Selina Wang November 27 2022 SCREENRAB

CNN reporter at site of protest against China’s zero-Covid policy

CNN has confirmed that two of those eight were released on bail Thursday evening and Friday, respectively, just days ahead of the Lunar New Year. One release was confirmed to CNN on Friday by her lawyer, who declined to comment further on whether she had been charged with a crime. The second was confirmed by a source with direct knowledge.

CNN has not been able to confirm whether others were released and if so, how many.

Two of the young women detained, including the editor, have been formally charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” people directly familiar with their cases said Friday — a step that could bring them closer to standing trial, with neither granted bail as of that day.

The overall number of people detained in connection with the protests within China’s notoriously opaque security and judicial systems also remains uncertain.

Beijing authorities have made no official comment about the detentions and the city’s Public Security Bureau did not respond to a faxed request for comment from CNN. There has been no public confirmation from the authorities involved that these or any other detentions were made in connection with the protests.

People hold up blank pieces of paper during a protest against China's zero-Covid measures on November 27, 2022 in Beijing, China.

CNN followed up on Monday with the district branch that is believed to be responsible for those detained following Beijing’s November 27 protest, but the branch didn’t respond prior to publication.

What is known about these detentions, carried out quietly in the weeks after November 27, stands as a chilling marker of the lengths to which China’s ruling Communist Party will go to stamp out all forms of dissent and free speech — and the tactics used to counter perceived threats.

The account that follows has, except where otherwise indicated, been reconstructed from interviews with three separate sources, who each directly know at least one of the people who were detained and are familiar with the circumstances of others within that circle.

CNN has agreed not to name any sources due to their concerns about retribution from the Chinese state and the sensitivities of speaking to foreign media. CNN is also not naming those detained for similar reasons.

Late in the evening of November 27, demonstrators gathered along the banks of Beijing’s Liangma River to remember at least 10 people killed in a fire that consumed their locked-down building in the northwestern city Urumqi. Public anger had grown following the emergence of video footage that appeared to show lockdown measures delaying firefighters from accessing the scene and reaching victims.

Many in the crowd that gathered in the heart of Beijing’s embassy district that night held up blank sheets of white A4-sized paper — a metaphor for the countless critical posts, news articles and outspoken social media accounts that were wiped from the internet by China’s censors. Some decried censorship and called for greater political freedoms, or shouted slogans calling for an end to incessant Covid tests and lockdowns. Others lit their phone flashlights in remembrance of the lives lost in the enforcement of that zero-Covid policy — the lights reflecting on the river flowing below, according to images and reporting by CNN at the time.

While police lined the streets that evening, the mood was largely calm and peaceful.

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The editor at the publishing house who joined that night did so “with a heavy heart,” after having heard that others would be mourning the Urumqi fire victims near the river that evening, she said in her video message.

Carrying flowers and notes of condolence for the victims, the editor met up with her friends. Among them was a former reporter who had studied sociology overseas and was a community volunteer during the lockdown in Shanghai.

Another friend, a journalist, attended as well as a teacher and a writer — all young women at similar stages of life — university graduates of the past few years, now starting out their careers.

At least some of those in the circle left before the protests ended that night, grabbing some food before returning home for the evening, unaware that their lives were about to change.

In the days that followed, their lives began to unravel.

CNN has previously reported that authorities in Beijing used cellphone data to track down those who demonstrated along the Liangma River and call them in for questioning.

Members of that group of friends were among those brought in. Police confiscated or searched their phones and electronic devices and subjected at least one to a urine test, according to one of the sources. Some, like the editor, were initially brought in for questioning, and held for around 24 hours, before they were released.

chinese police phone checks

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For those in the group, an uneasy calm descended in the days following. For the editor, she said she felt that could have been the end of it. They felt that what they had done was innocuous and no different from others in the crowd that night, according to people familiar with the thinking of some of those detained.

But just over two weeks later, the round-up of these Beijing friends began. Starting from December 18, four women in the group of friends and one of their boyfriends were detained by police over a period of several days. The editor learned of detentions among her friends with a sense of terror, a source said. She decided that if she were going to be taken away too, it would be better from her hometown in central China than a rented flat in Beijing.

In the video recording, she said she attended the gathering with her friends that night because they had the “right to express their legitimate emotions when fellow citizens die” as people who care about the society they live in.

“At the scene, we followed the rules, without causing any conflict with the police … Why does this have to cost the lives of ordinary young people? … Why can we be taken away so arbitrarily?” she asked.

But on December 23, after returning to her hometown, she too was taken into custody, according to two people familiar with her situation. Several days later, her friend, the sociology graduate, was also detained while visiting her hometown in southern China, becoming the seventh person in the circle to be taken in by police.

After their detentions, another friend began reaching out to their families, who were from different parts of the country and not previously in contact, in the hopes of helping coordinate the young women’s defense, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Earlier this month, that friend, too, was detained, according to two sources.

People who know them echoed a sense of confusion over the detentions in interviews with CNN, describing them as young female professionals working in publishing, journalism and education, that were engaged and socially-minded, not dissidents or organizers.

Police officers stand guard during a protest in Beijing, China, on Sunday, November 27, 2022.

One of those people suggested that the police may have been suspicious of young, politically aware women. Chinese authorities have a long and well-documented history of targeting feminists, and at least one of the women detained was questioned during her initial interrogation in November about whether she had any involvement in feminist groups or social activism, especially during time spent overseas, a source said.

All felt the detentions indicated an ever-tightening space for free expression in China.

“To be honest, I think the logic of arresting them is quite unclear,” said another source who knows them. “Because they are really not particularly experienced (with activism) … judging from this result, I can only say that this is a very ruthless suppression of some of the simplest and most spontaneous calls for justice in society today,” the person said.

“If they were arrested and imprisoned because they went to participate in this peaceful protest, I feel that maybe any young person who loves literature and yearns for a little bit of so-called ‘free thought’ could be arrested,” said an additional person. “This signal is terrifying.”

As popular frustration from three years of zero-Covid lockdowns, mass testing and tracking boiled over into demonstrations of a type not seen since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement of 1989, security forces largely refrained from an immediate overt, public crackdown that could have risked condemnation at home and abroad.

Instead, in the days that followed, security forces were dispatched to the streets en masse to discourage further demonstrations, with police patrolling streets and checking cell phones, while also tracking down participants, warning them not to participate further or bringing some in for questioning, according to CNN reporting at the time.

China Protest White Paper 2 SCREENGRAB

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Even by December 7, as the government, amid mounting economic pressure, relaxed the Covid-19 policies that had sparked those protests, signs had already begun emerging of how much the Party viewed those who had gathered on the streets as a threat.

In what appeared to be the first official acknowledgment of the protests on November 29, China’s domestic security chief, without directly mentioning the demonstrations, called on law enforcement to “resolutely strike hard against infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces,” state-run news agency Xinhua reported.

Not long after, in more pointed comments, China’s envoy in France suggested to reporters — without providing any evidence — that while the demonstrations may have begun due to public frustration with Covid-19 controls, they were swiftly co-opted by anti-China foreign forces, according to a transcript later posted on the embassy’s website.

In his New Year’s Eve address in late December, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said, it was “only natural for different people to have different concerns or hold different views on the same issue” in a big country, and what mattered was “building consensus” — a comment seen by some observers as striking a conciliatory tone, in contrast to its security crackdown.

“The ‘A4 revolution’ really, really shocked the Chinese authorities,” said academic lawyer Teng Biao, a globally recognized expert on defending human rights in China, using a popular name for the nationwide protests that alludes to the blank pieces of paper held by protesters. “And the Chinese government really, really wanted to know who was behind the protest.”

“It’s possible that the Chinese government or the secret police … have some theory that some protesters played an important role,” said Teng, who is currently a visiting professor at the University of Chicago and has himself been detained in China for his human rights and legal work. “They really want to get evidence of which protesters or participants have connections with the United States, with other countries, maybe foreign foundations, and they have used torture (in the past) to get confessions.”

International human rights groups have repeatedly accused China of extorting confessions from detainees through torture — a practice that is prohibited in China and which officials in the past said had been eliminated.

The University of Chicago’s Center for East Asian Studies on Wednesday also issued a statement saying they were “aware that people, including a former student of the University of Chicago, have recently been detained in China due to their participation in peaceful protests,” and called for their prompt release.

Under Chinese criminal law, prosecutors have 37 days to approve a criminal detention or let the detainees go, and if people are not released within that time, they have little chance to be released before trial — and almost all trials end in a guilty verdict, according to Teng.

One charge, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” that two of the friends have had formally approved against them, according to people familiar with the cases, carries a maximum sentence of up to five years. A release on bail, meanwhile, though rare, often leads to the dismissal of the case, Teng said.

The handling of political and human rights cases in China, however, “in practice … is totally arbitrary,” he said, adding that while these cases in Beijing had been brought to light there could be dozens, if not several hundred, similar such detentions in cities across the country that remain unreported — with families afraid to hire lawyers or talk to media.

The deep uncertainty of what would come next within China’s opaque system was clearly present in the mind of the editor as she recorded her video message in the days before her arrest. Then, she thought of her family, who would be unsure where she had gone — and what they would do in the situation they now find themselves.

“I guess my mother is now also coming from the south, traveling all the long way to Beijing to ask about my whereabouts,” said the editor, who CNN has confirmed remained in custody as of Friday.

In her final words in the video message, she made a simple call for help: “Don’t let us disappear from this world without clarity,” she said. “Don’t let us be taken away or convicted arbitrarily.”

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