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China: Fears grow for detained anti-COVID protesters

William Yang in Taipei
January 17, 2023

Chinese police have arrested scores of "white paper" protesters more than a month after unprecedented demonstrations nationwide. Many fear detained protesters are being psychologically and physically abused.

People hold sheets of blank paper in protest of COVID restriction in mainland as police setup cordon during a vigil in the central district on November 28, 2022, in Hong Kong
At least 32 people have been targeted by police since December, according to human rights website WeiquanwangImage: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

China may have reopened its border after anti-COVID demonstrations in November pushed Beijing to end its zero-COVID strategy, but authorities have since begun a series of retaliations against a number of people who took part in the protests.

At least 32 people have been targeted by police since December, according to Weiquanwang, a Chinese website documenting human rights issues in the country.

Though some protesters have been released on probation, more people have reportedly been arrested by police in recent days. Those still in detention include six young people who took part in a peaceful protest in Beijing in late November.

One of the protesters, Yang Liu, is a journalist working for state-controlled media outlet Beijing News. Others who are also believed to be in criminal detention include Cao Zhixin, an editor at a publishing house, a bar owner, an artist and another journalist for the Chinese media outlet Caixin.

In a video released on January 16, Cao questioned why the police arrested protesters when they followed the rules and avoided confronting the police at the scene of the protest.

"Was arresting us a task that someone has to accomplish? What is the purpose of this retaliation? Why do you have to use the lives of normal young people like us as the cost?" she asked in the video. "We don't want to be forced into disappearance and we want to know why we are being convicted."

Protesters fear phone checks

Sources familiar with details of their arrests told DW it was possible that police may have checked their phones during interrogation to determine who took part in the protest.

"The six of them are in the same Telegram group," said a young woman who only gave her name as Alice, referring to the global instant messaging service.

"The first few protesters arrested by police didn't have time to remove the records of communication on their phones, so when police summoned more people afterward, they already had the records they need," she added. 

Alice said that, after learning that police would review records of communication on protesters' phones or review chat histories on the Chinese messaging app WeChat, she tried to hide her phone for a few days.

"After I learned that one of my former colleagues was arrested, I became really scared," she told DW. "I went to find a lawyer the following Monday, and I signed all the documents, including the paperwork I need, in case I was forced into disappearance like some protesters."

People hold white sheets of paper in protest of coronavirus disease restrictions, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi
In a symbolic demonstration against censorship, protesters held up blank sheets of paper at the anti-COVID protests in NovemberImage: Thomas Peter/REUTERS

According to Alice, while many protesters summoned by police were only warned against taking part in similar activities in the future, those who have been arrested and detained are mostly protesters who led others to chant slogans, distributed white papers to the crowd — or have been caught on camera.

"Police are targeting people who seemed to be part of a group on the night of the protests or people who stood out from the crowd," she said.

Concerns over torture

Chinese legal scholar Teng Biao, who has been in touch with several protesters since the arrests began, told DW the crackdown is a retaliatory measure Beijing has adopted to send a chilling effect across China's civil society.

"Even though some protesters have reportedly been released, authorities are still arresting more people," he said.

"For those that are still in detention, it's difficult for the lawyers or family members to meet them or receive information about their status. Additionally, some protesters who were arrested have said that they have experienced or witnessed people being tortured while in detention. This is consistent with the Chinese Communist Party's way of responding to protests," Teng added.

Protesters have complained about being kicked and punched as well as being deprived of sleep and food while in detention. "Family members and lawyers have also been threatened," he told DW.

"Those released from detention are most likely warned of not revealing any information to the public," Teng said.

What comes next?

One source who requested anonymity told DW that some protesters who have been released from detention in recent days have been "sent back to their hometown," and that their freedom of movement remains limited.

Yang Zijing was arrested on December 4 after attending a protest in the southern city of Guangzhou. She was eventually released on January 3.

According to the source, Yang's mother and lawyer were not able to meet her during her detention, which pushed her mother to start voicing concerns through media interviews. Since her release, Yang's mother has remained quiet. The source told DW it was a sign that she may have been warned by authorities.

"Based on Yang's case, even if people who are still in detention were eventually released on probation, they would likely be sent back to their hometowns, and they probably won't be allowed to return to Beijing for at least a year," the source added.

China: The truth behind the Urumqi tragedy

But Chinese legal scholar Teng says the series of arrests may even prompt some citizens to become braver when it comes to speaking out.

"Some people may think they will face five to 10 years in prison, but after being released for spending only a few weeks in detention, the chilling effect that authorities intend to create may not work for them," he said, adding that he expects Beijing to think of various ways to prevent similar protests from happening in the future.

"Using advanced technology to surveil civil society is something that they will continue to do, but the ('white paper') movement also lets many Chinese people realize that these advanced technologies can't completely prevent a large-scale movement," he said.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum