China’s zero-covid protesters helped end the lockdowns. Where are they now?

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<strong>China’s zero-covid protesters helped end the lockdowns. Where are they now?</strong>

By Lili Pike

Originally published by GRID on Feb. 23, 2023

The government’s response to the protests says much about how China handles dissent.

Bree Linville; Kevin Frayer/ Getty Images

In China, life has returned to something like the pre-covid normal. You no longer need to show a green health QR code to enter public places or swab your throat every other day for mandatory PCR testing, and lockdowns are a thing of the past. But some of the people who pushed for the end of China’s “zero-covid” policy can’t enjoy these new freedoms.

Cao Zhixin is among them. On Nov. 27, the 26-year-old Beijing-based editor decided to attend a public vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi — deaths that many blamed on a lockdown that may have prevented people from escaping. The fire struck a nationwide chord; thousands of people took to the streets in China’s major cities. They called for an end to zero-covid; some also spoke out against censorship and even called for an end to President Xi Jinping’s rule.

The protests appeared to be a catalyst for change. Two weeks after the Urumqi fire, nearly all the zero-covid restrictions were lifted. But the protesters themselves didn’t escape the authorities’ attention.

China Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group based in the U.S., estimates that more than 100 people have been detained in the months since the protests. The Chinese government hasn’t made any public statements about the detentions and has threatened the families and lawyers of the detainees to keep quiet, according to Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer and activist who is based in the U.S. That’s left the fate of many protesters shrouded in mystery. But some detainees’ family members, friends and lawyers have shared information.

Cao’s case is unusual because of what she did before her detention. After hearing that several friends had been taken away by the police in December, she prerecorded a video that was meant to be released in the event she was arrested as well. When that time came, Cao’s friends released the video — a short but powerful statement that has made Cao something of a face for the detainees.

“When our fellow citizens died, we had reasonable feelings that we wanted to express,” she said into the camera. “We went out because we deeply sympathized with the people who lost their lives … We were orderly and didn’t have any conflicts with the police … Why do you have to make us ordinary young people pay the price?”

Cao’s account and others’ have helped human rights groups confirm that at least six protesters have been formally arrested in recent weeks, and at least 10 others have disappeared. Cao and her friends — four of the six known to be formally charged — were all first-time protesters who felt moved to attend the vigil in Beijing that November night. What’s happened to them and the other detainees shows some of the lengths China goes to quell dissent — even when the government winds up bowing to the protesters’ main demands.

Taking to the streets

Cao and most of her friends hailed from top universities and Beijing’s publishing and media circles; many of them had studied abroad. They discussed literature and social issues over reading groups and meals and had a broad awareness of the problems plaguing China. When asked about when Cao started to care about such issues, a close friend — who is based in the United States and asked to remain anonymous due to fear of repercussions — said, “It’s hard to locate a starting point, but I think we just cared. It’s hard to not care about these things, simply because there are so many problems. But there was definitely more and more dissatisfaction and anger with things in the last year.”

Like millions of people across China’s social classes, the friends had suffered through repeated covid lockdowns, which had returned in force as cases rose in November. So when the fire broke out in Xinjiang’s capital, the tragedy resonated deeply.

Under normal circumstances, Cao’s friend told Grid, “We all know it is super dangerous, and we would choose not to go to the streets. But somehow back then, the anger reached a tipping point after the comeback of the covid control policies, so we all sort of forgot about how dangerous it is to support people in [Urumqi] and other cities.”

The friends heard about the protests in other parts of China, and on the night of Nov. 27, they met at the banks of the Liangma River in Beijing, where people had gathered to mourn the victims of the Urumqi fire. The friends brought flowers, candles and notes as offerings for the vigil — and they carried blank sheets of paper, a protest against censorship. After staying for a few hours, the evening ended in uneventful fashion: They went out for barbecue and a drink at a bar.

Nothing appeared immediately awry to the friends that night. Cao’s close friend said neither he nor they expected any punishment would come from it. “I thought, there are so many attendees, and they did nothing at the scene,” he said, “I never suspected they would actually be formally arrested.”

“Picking quarrels and provoking trouble”

During that first weekend of protests across the nation, the police seemed to have largely stood by without making many arrests. But that was not the end of the story.

The detentions began soon after. Cao and her friends were taken in by police two days after the Beijing protest and questioned for up to 24 hours. They may have been relatively easy targets — they weren’t very savvy at dodging surveillance. As the Wall Street Journal reported, they had openly discussed the vigil on WeChat, an app that is closely monitored, before switching to Telegram, a chat app with encryption features. Even then, several used their Chinese numbers to register their Telegram accounts, making them easy to trace.

The police asked wide-ranging questions. According to NPR, one of the friends, a journalist, was asked which feminist organizations she was a part of — authorities are sensitive about this because feminism has been a prominent social movement and the object of a recent crackdown — and the Communist Party views any organized social group as a potential threat. Another friend was questioned about the Telegram group she had created.

In her video, Cao recounts that they were warned by the police but found to be innocent and let go. Her close friend told Grid that she and her friends assumed that was all the punishment they’d receive.

Reports indicate that the interrogations were rough in some police stations. Teng told Grid, “A few friends in Shanghai who were detained because of their participation told me that they saw detained protesters who were slapped in their faces and deprived of food … all these kinds of physical violence as well as psychological torture. And they heard the protesters scream in the police station out of pain.” One Shanghai detainee who was later released told the Washington Post, “We were only allowed to stand and could not talk to each other. They didn’t let us sleep; if I did, they would knock on the door to wake me up.”

Grid reached out to the Shanghai Police Department for comment. It declined the request for an interview.

In those few weeks in December, many of the protesters were detained, interrogated and released — just as Cao and her friends had been. But then, for some, the tables turned.

By the time Cao recorded her video in mid-December, four of her friends — Li Siqi, Li Yuanjing, Zhai Dengrui and Yang Liu — had already been detained again. Ominously, Cao said in her video, they were forced to sign arrest warrants with the charge left blank.

“We were really terrified when we heard that they were arrested again,” Cao’s close friend told Grid. Cao knew she was likely to be next.

Cao decided to leave Beijing for her hometown in Hunan province, but on Dec. 23, the police came for her there. Six police officers traveled the 1,000-mile distance from Beijing to get her, according to an account of her arrest gathered by human rights lawyers. Other protesters reported a similar number of police at their arrests: A lawyer for another detainee, Zhai Chunming, said some 10 officers had come to arrest him.

For a month, there was no word from Cao. Under Chinese law, once people are detained, they can be held for 30 days before being officially charged.

Then, on Jan. 20, Weiquan Wang, a website that publishes information on Chinese human rights cases, reported that four of the women had been charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” While the phrase may sound like a kindergarten rebuke, the charge has been applied frequently in cases of dissent, and it carries the possibility of up to five years in prison. Teng told Grid, “The definition is very weak, and then the authorities can use this to target human rights lawyers or activists and dissidents.”

Several others, including Yang Liu, one of Cao’s friends, were reportedly released on “bail pending trial,” meaning their charges may be dropped, but they will likely remain under surveillance for a year, according to China Human Rights Defenders.

What the last two months tell us about China’s approach to managing dissent

Other authoritarian regimes tend to take a more sweeping approach to public dissent of any kind. To take a recent example, Iran has arrested nearly 20,000 people and carried out executions of a small number of people who participated in anti-regime protests. The Chinese government appears to be taking a more targeted approach. While it is unclear exactly how many people have been detained or arrested, the police seem to be following a playbook that China has used in the past: punishing those deemed to be organizers or leaders of protests while letting other participants go.

Yang Zhanqing, a Chinese human rights activist who is now based in the U.S., told Grid that the same pattern played out following the recent protests against the Foxconn company for wage and covid control issues — and against rural banks in Henan that collapsed in a fraud scandal last year.

What’s the government’s logic? Human rights experts told Grid that officials have several reasons to opt for quiet crackdowns rather than mass arrests. In this case, because the protests were so widespread and the zero-covid policy had caused nationwide frustration, the government likely wanted to prevent a backlash. “It wouldn’t have been a good move by the state to really make an example of them publicly then,” said William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at China Human Rights Defenders. “It would have probably just inflamed things more.”

Christian Goebel, a professor of China studies at the University of Vienna who studies protests in China, told Grid, “They have this ratio where they want to use just enough repression to scare off people — but not enough to make them boil over and protest against the system again.”

In a similar vein, the government likely didn’t want to alert people that the protests were happening. “I don’t think they want to draw any attention to the fact that people took to the streets and yelled ‘down with Xi Jinping’ and other slogans,” Nee said.

Another factor: maintaining the appearance of due process. That helps explain why the government waited weeks to detain the women. Goebel said the authorities chose “to spread it out over time to not make it seem like a revenge act, but to say, well, like the Chinese government stresses, ‘We are a rule of law country, so we’re going through a process now … we’ve figured out that these were some ringleaders, so we arrested them, and they’re awaiting trial.’ So to have the semblance of rule of law.”

One challenge in applying this playbook to the zero-covid protests: identifying the ringleaders. “At the end of the day, this was a fairly spontaneous set of protests,” said Nee. They spread via word-of-mouth and a network of Telegram and other chat groups that popped up overnight to coordinate plans. That said, the police have still sought to identify central figures.

Rights experts who have been tracking cases have a theory for why the government has arrested certain people and not others: They believe the government has tried to pin the blame on “foreign forces” — a common scapegoat for Chinese officials. In December, the Chinese ambassador to France said that while “at first, people took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with … local governments,” the protests “were quickly exploited by foreign forces.”

That may help explain why the government appears to have focused its crackdown on people who have studied abroad or have ties to feminist or LGBTQ causes. The government has often dismissed activism on these issues in China as Western-backed movements intended to disrupt China’s social order.

Many of Cao’s friends had indeed studied abroad. As for feminism — Cao had stood outside a Beijing courthouse to support Xianzi, a young woman who accused a famous CCTV host of groping her when she was an intern, at a recent trial that drew widespread public attention. But Cao’s friend said the friends were not an organized feminist group. “They’re all feminists, of course, but they did not go [to the protest] as feminists,” the friend said.

What next for the protesters?

Cao and her friends are currently being held in a detention center in Beijing as they await further investigations and potential trials. Now that they’ve been officially charged, their chances of release are low. And their chances in court are slim; China’s conviction rate is nearly 100 percent.

“The police, the prosecution and the courts all formally cooperate … all of those entities serve the Communist Party ultimately. So there’s no division of labor, there’s no opposition among the different aspects of the criminal justice system,” said Nee. “It’s very tough for lawyers to make a difference for their clients when they’re held unjustly.”

It’s also possible that the protesters will remain in limbo for months — if not years. Human rights experts told Grid the government has a habit of delaying trial in such cases.

While they wait, Cao and the other detainees will live a harsh existence. “The conditions in a Chinese detention center are usually pretty terrible,” said Nee. “The conditions are often extremely cramped, with sometimes 20 to up to 60 people in one joint cell with one toilet, usually.” China has unofficial jails where conditions are worse, Nee added. “But by international standards, I’d say this is a really tough situation for the protesters to be in.”

Yang, who was detained in China for his human rights advocacy before fleeing to the U.S., said, “Generally speaking, their bodies and spirits will suffer great trauma … in the investigation period, they will definitely face torture to extract a confession, for instance by denying them food and sleep — and maybe even through corporal punishment, although generally that is used a bit less on women.”

At the end of Cao’s video, she implores, “Please don’t let us disappear from this earth without any reason.” Friends and family of the detainees have worried that public advocacy might backfire, but after some debate, Cao’s friends released her video.

Others have also taken Cao’s call to heart. The University of Chicago’s Center for East Asian Studies and Goldsmiths College are among the institutions that have released statements on behalf of alumni who have been detained in the protests. While their prospects in the Chinese legal system are bleak, human rights advocates and Cao’s friends are still hoping that with international advocacy, she and the other detainees may be released before trial. It’s a tragic, almost unthinkable turn of events for Cao, who was editing a translation of an anthropology book before she was arrested. Now, according to what her lawyers told her friend after their last visit, she is teaching other detainees ancient poems to pass the time. Meanwhile, young people in China just like her are free of lockdowns and other restrictions, thanks in part to the protesters who rallied to bring them to an end.

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