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

‘Blank Paper movement’ decrying government policies rekindles dissent after Xi Jinping’s decade of iron-fisted crackdowns.

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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.”

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.”

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….


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