A number of people who took part in demonstrations against China’s zero-Covid policy last November are still in detention, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Thursday. The New York-based group called for the immediate release of everyone who was detained in connection with the protests, some of whom face charges while others have not been heard from for weeks.
“Young people in China are paying a heavy price for daring to speak out for freedom and human rights,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Governments and international institutions around the world should show support and call on the Chinese authorities to release them immediately.”
The demonstrations in late November in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan and other cities drew thousands of protesters calling for an end to China’s policy of controlling coronavirus by mass testing and quarantine. Some demonstrations saw protesters chanting antigovernment slogans and at others, people held white sheets of paper as a symbol of censorship.
The government scrapped the zero-Covid days after the demonstrations and president Xi Jinping told a European Union delegation in December that the protesters had mostly been frustrated students and young people. The Chinese authorities have not made any public statements about arrests or detentions but Human Rights Watch said demonstrators have been targeted.
“Authorities across the country harassed or detained dozens of students, journalists, and others – notably many women – who participated in the protests. Some protesters have been released on bail. Others remain detained, with a number of them having been formally arrested. The current whereabouts or conditions of some of the detainees remain unknown,” the group said.
Human Rights Watch named four people it said had been arrested following a demonstration in Beijing: Cao Zhixin, an editor at a publishing house; Li Yuanjing, an accountant; Zhai Dengrui, a teacher; and Li Siqi, a journalist. It said the four had been charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a catch-all offence that can carry up to a five-year prison sentence for first offenders.
In a video recorded before her arrest, Ms Cao said that she and her friends had attended the demonstration to remember the victims of a fire in Urumqi that killed 10 people after fire fighters were reportedly delayed by coronavirus lockdown measures. She said they had followed the rules and did not cause a conflict with the authorities.
“When you see this video I have been taken away by the police for a while, like my other friends,” Ms Cao said.
“When our fellows die we have the right to express our legitimate emotions. Our sympathy is for those who lost their lives and that’s why we went to the scene.”
Human Rights Watch said that the whereabouts of Li Yi and Chen Jialin, who were arrested at a demonstration in Shanghai, remain unknown. And it accused the Chinese authorities of harassing lawyers representing those who were detained, as well as friends who had offered them support.
“Attending a vigil and calling for authorities to respect human rights are not crimes,” Ms Wang said.
“The crackdown on protesters only revealed Beijing’s deep fear of the power of the country’s young people.”