Officials in Beijing have released four women on bail who were arrested for joining rare nationwide protests in late November against China’s tough anti-coronavirus policies, an activist said.
One of the women, former book editor Cao Zhixin, had recorded a video before her detention saying, “If you’re watching this, it means that I have been taken away by the police.”
She and her friends Li Yuanjing, Zhai Dengrui, and Li Siqi were detained in Beijing in December and accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vague charge often used against dissidents, according to Human Rights Watch.
All four were released Thursday on bail, according to a Chinese activist who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of government reprisals.
Cao and a group of friends had joined a protest that was part of a burst of nationwide demonstrations against China’s tough “zero COVID” policy, a rare display of direct defiance against the central government, after the deaths of 10 people in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi. Many questioned whether the coronavirus restrictions had impeded rescue efforts.
The protests were the most direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party in decades. In Shanghai, young people shouted directly for President Xi Jinping to step down.
For the first years of the pandemic, China had largely controlled the coronavirus by ordering strict lockdowns that confined people to their homes, sometimes for months. The strategy succeeded in keeping deaths low before vaccines were widely administered. But the policies were further tightened as the virus became more contagious and harder to control.
The protest in Beijing drew people who wanted to commemorate the victims of the Urumqi fire. Some participants held up blank pieces of paper representing restrictions on free speech.
In her video, Cao said police started detaining people on December 18.
“Four of our friends have already been taken away at the time of this video,” she said. Police had detained Li Yuanjing, Zhai Dengrui, and Li Siqi. A fourth friend, Yang Liu, was also taken but was released in January, according to Human Rights Watch.
“We care about this society, and when our fellow countrymen die, we want to express our legitimate feelings. We are filled with sympathy for those who lost their lives,” Cao said in the video.
Across the country, the protests died down amid a major police presence. The government dropped its “zero COVID” policy, and police began detaining an unknown number of people who had attended protests in several cities.