Increasing Calls to Release Detained “A4” Protesters

Two months after the spontaneous nationwide protests that broke out in response to a deadly fire in Urumqi and draconian pandemic controls, an unknown number of peaceful protesters remain in detention on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” or “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” Human rights groups and others have called for the release of the “A4” or “blank paper” detainees (so called because of the blank sheets of A4 paper used as protest signs during the gatherings), some of whom have been threatened, physically abused, or denied access to legal representation while in detention.

Chinese Human Rights Defenders has compiled a list of known detainees and issued a call to release all of the “blank paper” protesters:

At the time of this press release, there are names of 30+ people who were taken into custody; we estimate that at least 100+ people have been detained, and some of them have been simply released or released on “bail pending trial” (取保候审). Under Chinese law, defendants released on “bail pending trial” can see the charges against them dropped if they do not commit further violations of the law, but often remain under close police surveillance for one year. In other cases, involving unknown names or other details, family members are reluctant to go public out of the fears for retaliation from the Chinese government. [Source]

Several of those arrested for attending the peaceful protest held in late November at Beijing’s Liangmahe Bridge are current or former journalists. “By arresting and detaining four reporters for the simple fact of being present at the place of the protests, the Chinese regime has sent one more chilling message to those who believe that factual information should be reported even when it contradicts the official narrative,” noted RSF East Asia bureau head Cédric Alviani. “The regime should release [the remaining] two reporters as well as all other journalists and press freedom defenders detained in China, and to drop all charges against them.” 

Particularly worrying is the fact that security forces seem to have zeroed in on young female protesters, interrogating them about their involvement with feminism, LGBTQ+ issues, NGOs, book clubs, and foreign study or travel. A recent report by CNN details this concerning trend:

People who know [the detained women] 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.

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. [Source]

Some of the protesters wrote letters or recorded videos prior to being detained. Helen Davidson of The Guardian reported on a video by Cao Zhixin, a 26-year-old editor at Peking University Press, who was summoned by police and later detained after she and some friends attended a November 27 vigil in Beijing:

[Cao Zhixin] said she recorded the video after several friends were detained. She gave it to unnamed friends with instructions to publish it if she were arrested.

“When you see this video I have been taken away by the police for a while, like my other friends,” the video says.

Cao said her friends were made to sign blank arrest warrants, without criminal accusations listed, and that police refused to reveal the location of their detention. [Source]

At the New York Times, Vivian Wang and Zixu Wang described the arrests of the young women, none of whom are seasoned activists, as a way for the Chinese government to deflect from the underlying dissatisfaction that fueled the protests, perhaps pin the blame on “hostile foreign forces,” and deter others who might have drawn inspiration from the demonstrations:

“The Chinese government has to look for an explanation that fits their logic, and they don’t believe that people organize on their own, according to their own political feeling. There must be a ‘black hand,’” [said Lu Pin, a Chinese feminist activist who now lives in the United States]. “In China, feminism is the last active, visible social movement.”

[…] Ms. Lu […] said the police’s evident focus on people who were not prominent organizers, or even apparently part of any larger group, underscored how the authorities had decimated civil society.

“After all the repression, in the eyes of the police, these people have become the most threatening forces,” she said. “These communities that normally would not be considered political — people eating together, watching movies, talking about art — at key times, these can have the potential for political activation.” [Source]

On the Chinese internet and social media, discussion of the protests and the detained protesters is heavily censored, although netizens have attempted to share related content and updates. CDT Chinese editors have archived two now-deleted posts that sought to circumvent censorship by not including the names of specific female detainees, referring to them only by “she” or “them.” Both were shared and commented on before eventually being taken down.

The first post, from Weibo user @宪跬法律 (Xiankui Falu), describes a December 29 visit made by an attorney to a young woman in detention: “This afternoon, at a detention center 100 kilometers (60 miles) away, I was able to meet with a brave young woman.” Although the young woman is not named, those who commented on the post speculated that it could be one of the detained A4 protesters, or perhaps even Wuyi, a feminist activist who was detained after she attempted to visit a woman in Jiangsu who had been chained and shackled in a shed by her husband. A partial translation of the post and some of the comments appear below:

Lastly, I asked her if she had anything to say to her parents.

She said, “I hope my parents will look after their health and eat more fruit. I’ll be able to adjust to being here, so please tell them not to worry. … My mom knows that I did nothing wrong.” As she said this, she choked up a bit.

(Selected comments):

举报人的离奇遭遇:I don’t know who this young woman is, but we can see from lawyer Zheng’s Weibo post that she is a brave young woman, and I hope that she will regain her freedom soon!

YZWB001:These women are a ray of light for 2022.

土猫晴空月:Not only didn’t she do anything wrong, she is the most courageous person among us, braver than all of us combined!

企鹅饲养员一号机:So many brave people were forcibly disappeared. Now that the New Year is upon us, are they okay? [Chinese]

The second post is a now-deleted essay, written in response to the story of the lawyer’s visit to the detained woman. Published by WeChat account “声声不息的我们” (Shengsheng Bu Xi De Women, “We Who Will Not Be Silenced”), the essay draws a parallel between the unnamed young woman in detention and all of the brave young people who spoke out for justice in 2022: 

Because of you [young people], the suffering that we have endured during these three years of the pandemic seems to have some small shred of meaning after all. It was you who, by boldly speaking your minds, won back a modicum of dignity for every person who has been harmed and enslaved. [Chinese]

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