China’s authorities are quietly rounding up people who protested against COVID rules
By Emily Feng
11 Junuary 2023
They were tracked down and detained. The crackdown came swiftly.
Using phone tower data, police were able to roughly triangulate who had been near the Liangma River the night of Nov. 27. They called in vigil attendees or visited their homes at night. Most participants were let go after a few hours of questioning, but the editor watched with a growing sense of dread as her friends were detained one by one.
The newspaper journalist was asked repeatedly which feminist organizations and events she had participated in. Police were especially aggressive when questioning a woman who works as an accountant at a multinational firm, who frequented live rock music events.
The accountant had been in a chat group on the encrypted messaging app Telegram about the vigil. Since she happened to be the administrator of the chat group, she must be the demonstration organizer, police reasoned.
Some had been at the vigil purely by accident. A 31-year-old techno enthusiast happened to be drinking with friends at a bar along the Liangma River. The German magazine Der Spiegel later ran a cover story with a picture of her holding a blank sheet of white paper aloft that night.
“I drink every weekend, but the police didn’t believe that I was just drinking there. They think I am the organizer,” the techno fan says. Police eventually let her go after 24 hours of questioning, but they confiscated her cellphone.
On Nov. 30, police released the editor and her friends and said they could go home. The group of friends thought the worst had passed. China’s leader Xi, in meetings with European diplomats soon after, reportedly dismissed the vigils as the product of a few “frustrated student protesters.”
But by mid-December, the public narrative in China about the protests — previously largely unmentioned in official channels — was beginning to change. Nationalist bloggers online posited, without any factual basis, that foreign meddling was responsible for instigating the unrest. Some Chinese officials encouraged the speculation that foreign countries were responsible.
“At first, people took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with how local governments were unable to completely and accurately implement measures introduced by the central government, but the protests were quickly exploited by foreign forces,” said Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry transcript of remarks he gave at a reception shortly after the demonstrations.
Starting Dec. 18, many of those briefly detained earlier were formally arrested, including the editor and her friends. The woman on the Der Spiegel cover was arrested as well, according to a friend.
In her video, the editor says they were forced to sign arrest notices but the space next to what crime they were being charged with, along with when and where they would be detained, had been left blank. The families of those detained were unable to keep a copy of the arrest warrants, according to two people close to them.
NPR reached out to the Beijing police departments that made the arrests, but they declined to comment, saying the case was a national security matter.