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

<span>Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Cao Zhixin was an ordinary young woman with no political ambition, but a fateful decision to take to the streets one night last year has inadvertently turned her into the face of resistance in China.

“She was just a girl who was keen on books, she didn’t have great ambitions,” says a close friend who spoke to the Guardian but requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. “She said all she wanted was a husband, kids and a warm bed.”

But on the night of 27 November, driven by anger over a deadly apartment fire in Urumqi – in the far west of the country – that was blamed on Covid lockdowns, she and several friends joined a vigil in Beijing to mourn the victims. The 26-year-old was totally unprepared for what was to come.

“She was scared but excited. She had never seen a public assembly before and that was her first time,” Cao’s friend tells the Guardian. “After they let out their long-repressed emotions, they felt liberated.”

Related: Chinese woman says she is detained in secret location after Beijing protest

In the following days, all nine of those that joined the assembly were taken away by police, says Cao’s friend. They were released within 24 hours, but three weeks later police returned and they were placed in criminal detention, initially not knowing what charges they faced. Four of them – including Li Yuanjing, Li Siqi and Zhai Dengrui – have since been “formally arrested”, or charged, which in the Chinese legal system means they are highly likely to be convicted.

Cao, who was the last of her friends to be re-detained, was charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” on 19 January. In a pre-recorded video released by her friends after her arrest, she appealed for help: “Don’t let us disappear quietly from this world!”

Like many vigils over the weekend of 26-27 November, the assembly that Cao and her friends took part in quickly turned into a protest. In the most widespread anti-government protests since 1989, demonstrators decried the lockdowns, mass surveillance and compulsory testing of China’s zero-Covid policy. Many protesters held up blank sheets of A4 paper and some even called on president Xi Jinping to step down.

The China protest database of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute recorded 68 protests across 31 cities in China between 26 November and 4 December.

In the days that followed, with the aid of surveillance camera footage and facial recognition technology, police detained numerous protesters, say individuals who have been interrogated by Chinese police.

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

US-based rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders has gathered the names of more than 30 people who were taken into custody and estimates that at least 100 people have been summoned, interrogated or detained – most of them concentrated in Beijing. Some of them have been released on bail, but remain under close police surveillance for one year.

These figures are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. Many more arrests remained unreported. A US-based Uyghur man says his 19-year-old sister, Kamile Wayit, a college student in central China, was taken away by police in mid-December when she went back to Xinjiang for winter break. Kewser Wayit says he does not know the reason for his sister’s detention, but police called his father when Kamile posted a video of the protests on social media. An officer at a local police station put the phone down when the Guardian called requesting comment.

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The spontaneous “Blank Paper movement” has turned many ordinary young Chinese into accidental activists who have unwittingly rekindled China’s beleaguered rights defence movement, which was almost completely eradicated under Xi’s decade-long, iron-fisted crackdown on activists, dissidents, rights lawyers and NGOs.

Human rights experts pointed out that although the “Blank Paper movement” was fundamentally different from the previous Weiquan (rights defence) movement in that protesters had a range of motivations, they carried the same desire for basic rights, so it could be seen as a renewal of China’s rights movement.

‘We all want to fight back’

The decade-long Weiquan movement – which involved a loose network of rights lawyers, NGO workers, journalists and activists who helped ordinary Chinese in the lower social strata to assert their legal rights – started in 2003 but dissolved after a series of crackdown on civil society under Xi’s rule.

Despite government critics being silenced for over a decade, the number of voices demanding freedom last November reveals the ongoing discontent against Xi’s rule.

Two young people who talked to the Guardian separately say events in 2022, from workers’ protests against Covid curbs in south China to the lone protester in Beijing who hung banners calling for free votes and the removal of Xi, resonated deeply.

Related: ‘The authorities will step up control’: where next for China after protests?

Another person who participated in the protests says they were elated to find so many like-minded people around them.

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

Eva Pils, a law professor at King’s​ College London, says the Communist party’s leadership was not only suppressing the coronavirus, but also the critics of its policies. “Then it only took a few sparks, such as the reaction to the Urumqi fire and to the lone protester on Sitong Bridge, to set off fairly 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 defence movement in 2003, says the “Blank Paper” protesters face much higher risks today as the political situation is more repressive.

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

Teng says protesters’ demands, particularly those calling for Xi’s ousting, would have angered the authorities and harsher crackdowns can be expected. “China cannot tolerate anyone challenging its system and authority.”

Related: Chinese bots flood Twitter in attempt to obscure Covid protests

The Communist party has since blamed “hostile forces” for mobilising the protests – an indication that harsh punishment would be used against those it sees as key players.

Lu Jun, a former head of anti-discrimination NGO Yirenping who moved to the US after it was closed in Xi’s crackdown, says the protests have likely awakened “a consciousness of rights” among young people but questions the sustainability of the moment.

William Nee, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, says the Communist party’s social control makes it “nearly impossible to organise and mobilise, so the big challenge will be finding ways to make this newfound awareness actionable on the ground”.

A 25-year-old woman who had been interrogated by police after protesting in south China tells the Guardian that even though she is frightened by police, the protests have radicalised her as she has witnessed the power of collective resistance for the first time in her life.

“I eagerly await the next gathering.”

*Name has been changed