"If you are all watching this video, then I have been taken away by police, just like my other friends.”
By Kai Di and Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
January 18, 2023
Protesters hold up blank sheets of paper and chant slogans as they march in protest against strict anti-COVID measures in Beijing, Nov. 27, 2022.
Dozens of young Chinese -- many of them women -- are being quietly detained for taking part in November’s "white paper" protests, Radio Free Asia has learned.
Sources familiar with the crackdown in Beijing say at least 40 people are missing and believed detained following a protest at the city's Liangmahe district on the night of Nov. 27, according to a woman who gave only the surname Chen for fear of reprisals.
Chen was watching video posts on social media about the "white paper" anti-lockdown protest in her hometown of Beijing in which people held up blank sheets of paper to express their frustration over restrictions on freedom of speech and to show solidarity with victims of a fatal lockdown fire in an apartment building in Xinjiang's regional capital of Urumqi.
"Within three minutes, I'd decided to go down” to join them, Chen, a former journalist at a commercial media organization, told RFA Mandarin.
Chen, who narrowly avoided detention because she was unable to arrive at the protest, said she knows of around 20 people who are missing or detained after taking part. She has been trying to raise public awareness of the detentions.
A prerecorded video made by detained protester Cao Zhixin details more than a dozen detainees, while U.S.-based rights activists said at least 40 have been quietly detained for their part in the protests, likely not just in Beijing.
"I had told people that morning that if anyone took to the streets in Beijing, that I didn't know if I would dare to go too," Chen said. "But once I found out they did, I made the decision to go in three minutes. I went down there at about 10:45 pm that night, but there were roadblocks everywhere on the streets, so I couldn't find them.”
"The Communist Party made me unemployed, then imposed so many lockdowns that I could not go to [job] interviews," she said. "Shouldn't I be doing something to lift these restrictions on me?"
Collective mourning, protest
Footage of the Liangmahe protest was soon circulating on social media, as mostly young people turned out in a collective act of mourning for the victims of a fatal lockdown fire in Urumqi and to protest the zero-COVID policy they saw as being the cause of suffering as the economy stalled and travel bans left many confined to their neighborhoods and apartments.
Chen has never been a fan of Western political thought, preferring to focus on Chinese history, which she credits with giving her a finely honed sense of political persecution, from ancient times right through to the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) instigated by late supreme leader Mao Zedong.
She doesn't see herself as a rebel, but came to political awareness through her following of feminist news online, she said.
"It was because I started going online from a very young age, in 2008, around the time that [jailed rights activist] Wu Gan and [now-shuttered] Gongmeng [public interest law center] were helping Deng Yujiao with her legal case," Chen said, in a reference to the 2009 homicide trial of a beauty therapist who allegedly stabbed a government official to death after he sexually assaulted her.
One of those who did get to the Liangmahe protest was Cao Zhixin, an editor at the Peking University Publishing House, who said police started rounding up everyone at the protest quietly from Dec. 18, using criminal detention notices with a blank space where the suspected crime was supposed to be, and with no information on where the detainees were being taken.
"Our mothers have been running around in the middle of a pandemic ... trying to find out why we were taken away, and where we are being held," Cao said. "But our mothers won't even be able to bring us clothing for the coldest time of year in Beijing, because they don't know where we are."
Cao cited 13 people she knew had been taken away, with dozens of other young people reported missing by Twitter account @CitizensDailyCN.
Protesters hold up blank sheets of paper and chant slogans as they march in protest in Beijing on Nov. 27, 2022. Credit: Associated Press
Of the names listed by the Twitter account, which RFA has been unable to verify independently, a large proportion are women, many of them journalists, with musicians, bar owners and DJs also listed.
"Feminists, LGBT groups, and other subcultural circles that gather in Beijing bars are really vulnerable groups in China," Chen said. "They have a strong sense of injustice and discrimination."
"Everyone is well-educated and works in the media, so they have some empathy for other people's misfortunes," she said.
“Raise their voices”
Some of the detainees were taken to the Chaoyang Detention Center, and include Cao, Yang Liu and Li Siqi, Chen said, adding that there are plenty of other detainees who nobody has heard of, and whose families have chosen to remain silent due to intimidation from the authorities. Any information about them tends to trickle through friends and other associates, she said.
U.S.-based feminist Xiang Li said she knows the kind of people who would have turned up at the Liangmahe protest. "They have a very strong desire to express themselves; they represent the awakened voice of Chinese women, and they're not afraid to pay the price," she said.
Xiang said many of these Generation Z young people already see themselves as the last in their family line, with little to lose.
"They want to raise their voices to call for their rights and freedoms," she said.
Cao's prerecorded video would appear to bear testament to that desire. A friend released it after she was detained, and it has gone viral on social media.
"We pay attention to what goes on in our society," Cao said. "If you are all watching this video, then I have been taken away by police, just like my other friends.”
Cao Zhixin, an editor at the Peking University Publishing House, was arrested after attending a protest in Beijing’s Liangmahe district. She says police quietly started rounding up people who were at the protest on Dec. 18, 2022. Credit: Screenshot from video
“We were full of sympathy for those who lost their lives, and, with heavy hearts, we joined the crowd mourning at Liangmahe that night," she said.
"Why are they enacting this revenge [on us]?" Cao said. "Why are the lives of ordinary young people being used to pay the price?"
"We don't want to vanish into thin air," she said. "What are we to be convicted of, and on what evidence? Why is there no room in this society for us to express our emotions?"
Cao listed the names, occupations and time of disappearance of 13 missing young people, and displayed a photo of her holding up a blank sheet of paper at the protest.
“Living in fear”
A person familiar with the crackdown told Radio Free Asia that at least 40 people had been detained after police broke into the phones and iPads of Cao and Yang, the first to be detained for the Liangmahe protest.
Former 1989 student leader Zhou Fengsuo said there were likely far more detentions than that across China. Major "white paper" protests took place on Urumqi Road, Shanghai, Haizhu Square in Guangzhou, Wanping Street in Chengdu, and Zhongshan Avenue, Wuhan.
"They have been detained by the Chinese Communist Party on trumped-up charges, with only half of them publicly named," he said. "So many people must be living in fear, and their family members don't know what to do."
U.S.-based veteran rights activist Yang Jianli said the detentions are related to the fact that the "white paper” movement severely dented President Xi Jinping's personal prestige.
"The power of those blank sheets of paper was quite considerable, because it reduced people's fear of the regime, and of Xi Jinping," Yang said. "Even though [Xi] may have been forced to accept [an end to the zero-COVID policy], he still can't condone the way these opinions were expressed through protest."
"He has to restore that state of fear in which nobody dares to raise anything, and I think he is using these disappearances ... to recreate that atmosphere of political terror."
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.