‘We just want to live in a normal world’: China’s youth protesters speak, and disappear China

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Cao Zhixin was a simple young woman with no political ambitions, but a fateful decision to take to the streets one night last year inadvertently made her the face of China’s resistance.

A close friend who spoke to the Guardian said, “She was just a girl who was fond of books, she didn’t have any big ambitions.” “She said all she wanted was a husband, children and a warm bed.”

But on the night of 27 November, fueled by anger over a deadly apartment fire in Urumqi – in the country’s far west – that was blamed on the Covid lockdown, he and several friends led a procession in Beijing to mourn the victims. joined in. The 26-year-old was completely unprepared for what was to come.

“She was scared but excited. She had never seen a public gathering before and it was her first time,” Cao’s friend told the Guardian. “When he let his long-repressed feelings out, he felt free.”

In the days that followed, police took away all nine people who attended the meeting, say friends of Cao. He was released within 24 hours, but three weeks later the police returned and placed him in criminal custody, initially not knowing what charges he was facing. Four of them – including Li Yuanjing, Li Siqi and Zhai Dengrui – have been “formally arrested”, or charged, which in the Chinese legal system means they are highly likely to be convicted.

Cao, who was again the last of his friends to be detained, was charged with “fighting and inciting trouble” on 19 January. In a pre-recorded video released by her friends after her arrest, she pleaded for help: “Don’t let us disappear silently from this world!”

Like many vigils over the weekend of 26–27 November, the gathering that Cao and his friends attended quickly turned into a protest. In the most widespread anti-government demonstrations since 1989, protesters denounced China’s zero-COVID policy of lockdowns, mass surveillance and mandatory testing. Many of the protesters carried blank sheets of A4 paper and some even called on President Xi Jinping to step down.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s China protests database recorded 68 protests in 31 cities in China between 26 November and 4 December.

In the following days, with the aid of surveillance camera footage and facial recognition technology, police detained several protesters who have been questioned by Chinese police.

People gather on a street in Shanghai last November to protest against China’s zero-covid policy. Photograph: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

US-based rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders has gathered the names of more than 30 people who were detained and estimates that at least 100 have been summoned, interrogated or detained – among them Most are concentrated in Beijing. Some of them have been released on bail, but they have been under strict police surveillance for a year.

These figures are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. Many more arrests went unreported. A Uyghur man living in the US says his 19-year-old sister, Kamil Wyatt, a college student in central China, was taken away by police in mid-December when she went back to Xinjiang for winter break. Kevsar Wyatt says he doesn’t know the reason his sister was detained, but after Kamille posted a video of the protest on social media, police called her father. An officer at a local police station hung up when the Guardian requested comment.

The spontaneous “Blank Paper Movement” has turned many ordinary young Chinese into casual activists, who have unwittingly rekindled China’s troubled rights movement, which focuses on activists, dissidents, rights advocates and NGOs. was almost completely exterminated under Xi’s decade-long crackdown. ,

Human rights experts pointed out that although the “Blank Paper Movement” was fundamentally different from previous Viken Protesters in the movement had a range of motivations, they shared a common desire for basic rights, so it can be seen as a renewal of China’s rights movement.

‘We all want to fight back’

decade long Viken The movement – ​​which consisted of a loose network of rights lawyers, NGO activists, journalists and activists who helped ordinary Chinese in the lower social strata to assert their legal rights – began in 2003, but under Xi’s rule the civil After a series of crackdowns the society disbanded.

Despite more than a decade of silencing critics of the government, the number of voices calling for independence last November reflected ongoing discontent against Xi’s rule.

Two young people speaking separately to the Guardian say events in 2022, from workers’ protests against Covid restrictions in southern China to the lone protester in Beijing holding up banners demanding free votes and Xi’s ouster , resonated deeply.

Another person who participated in the protests says that they were very happy to have so many like-minded people around them.

“It is encouraging to know that there are so many people who are disenfranchised like me, and that we all want to fight back,” says Ana*, who has been questioned by the police and is still under observation. “But it’s upsetting to see so many of my friends get arrested and we have no way to protect ourselves … We just want to live in a normal world.”

Eva Pils, professor of law at King’s College London, says the Communist Party leadership was not only suppressing the coronavirus, but also critics of its policies. “Then it took only a few sparks in response to the Urumqi fire and the lone protester on the Sitong Bridge to spark large-scale protests against the suppression of civil and political rights.”

Dr. Teng Biao, a veteran rights activist who was at the forefront of the rights movement in 2003, says “blank paper” protesters face much greater risks today because the political situation is more repressive.

“The Blank Paper movement shows that even under the high-tech surveillance of dictatorial regimes, people still managed to organize nationwide protests,” says Teng, now a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. “It will have a profound impact on China’s democratic struggles in the future.”

Teng says the protesters’ demands, especially those seeking Xi’s removal, will have angered the authorities and harsher action can be expected. “China cannot tolerate anyone challenging its system and authority.”

The Communist Party has since blamed “hostile forces” for mobilizing the protests – a sign that harsher punishments will be used against those seen as key players.

Lu Jun, a former head of the anti-discrimination NGO Yirenping who fled to the US after Xi’s crackdown, says the protests have raised a “consciousness of rights” among youths, but the stability at the moment Raises questions.

William Nie, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, says that the Communist Party’s social control makes it “almost impossible to organize and mobilize, so the great challenge will be to find ways to make this new awakening actionable on the ground”.

A 25-year-old woman who was questioned by police after protests in southern China tells the Guardian that although she is afraid of police, the protests have radicalized her as she saw first-hand the power of collective resistance Is. life.

“I look forward to the next meeting.”

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