By MASAYUKI TAKADA/ Correspondent
June 6, 2023 at 07:00 JST
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on how police cracked down on participants of the “blank paper” protests against China’s zero-COVID policy that broke out in November 2022.
BEIJING--Cao Zhixin was living in a room in a traditional “hutong” neighborhood in China’s capital, working for a publisher.
But her life came crashing down around noon on Nov. 29 last year when several individuals who claimed to be police officers visited her out of the blue.
“You must be Cao Zhixin. Will you come with us?” one male officer said.
Another officer tried to calm her down, telling her she shouldn’t be worried because many of her friends who participated in a demonstration with her would also be coming along.
Cao, who was still in her nightclothes, panicked, but she complied and asked them to let her change her clothing.
An acquaintance of Cao who learned about the incident later recalled what Cao was doing two days earlier.
She joined a protest against China’s zero-COVID policy held in the heart of Beijing.
It was also referred to as the “blank paper movement” because participants held up white sheets of paper to show their opposition.
Afterward, she lost contact with friends who were also at the scene.
A series of protests against China’s overly strict COVID-19 measures broke out after a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on Nov. 24, which killed 10 residents.
There was the increasing view that the fire damage was worsened because passages were closed under stringent restrictions.
At the time, discontent was growing against the zero-COVID policy introduced to contain outbreaks with strict lockdowns. A wave of protests broke out across the country as residents held up blank sheets of paper signifying the limits on freedom of speech.
After learning about a protest held in another city through social media, Cao told her close circle that she wanted to mourn the victims in Urumqi.
Cao and her friends arrived at the scene of protest in Beijing at around 8 p.m. on Nov. 27 and joined protesters who held bundles of flowers and blank sheets of paper calling for freedom.
But they didn’t say or do anything to criticize the regime, according to the acquaintance who is familiar with their protest.
Police officers started gathering at the scene as the evening went on. Cao seemed to be worried about the situation, saying she was “scared.”
While the protest continued on, Cao left the scene at around midnight.
Police visited her home two days after the incident and took her to a nearby police station.
Cao was questioned in detail about what she was doing at the protest, her background, her job and whether she had ties to foreign governments.
Her smartphone and personal computer were also confiscated.
She was not released from police custody until the next day.
That day, Cao inserted a newly purchased SIM card in an old smartphone she had kept in her home to contact the acquaintance, who said Cao sounded a little depressed.
But she was calm enough to joke and laugh about it, saying, “If you were me, you’d have panicked more than I did.”
“At the time, we both had no idea how serious the situation was,” the acquaintance recalled.
One week later, on Dec. 7, the Chinese government considerably eased its zero-COVID policy, as requested by the protesters.
But Cao didn’t know until Dec. 18 how things were escalating beyond her imagination.
When she was visiting her friend’s home in Shanghai, she learned that her friends had been detained again.
Out of concern that she could also be taken into custody, Cao decided to head to Hunan province, where her parents live, instead of returning to Beijing.
On Dec. 22, Cao recorded a video where she talked about how she was worried about her own safety.
“I have asked my friends to share this video with the world in case of my disappearance. If you are seeing this video, it means I have already been taken away by the police,” she said in the three-minute video, which shows her looking directly at the camera and speaking as if she were trying to choke back her anger and anxiety.
“If we will be arrested just for attending a mourning event, where can we express our emotions in this society?”
“I don’t want to be erased without a reason,” she said.
One of her friends who received the video said, “I think she feared that she would be erased from existence without being noticed by anyone.”
The next day, on Dec. 23, Cao spoke with the acquaintance on the phone and said that she started doing her editing work from her parents’ home, saying that she wanted to continue with what she should be doing instead of worrying about what might happen.
But the acquaintance lost contact with Cao after that.
According to several sources, Chinese authorities took her away from her parents’ home that day. She was placed in a detention facility in Beijing.
And on Jan. 19 this year, Cao was formally arrested on suspicion of picking quarrels and causing trouble. At least three of her friends were also charged with the same crime.
Cao’s boyfriend told The Asahi Shimbun in February: “She is just a regular member of society. She didn’t make any political demands at the scene or commit any crime.”
He asked a lawyer to deliver a message to Cao telling her not to be discouraged because she had the support of many people.
He received a letter from Cao through the lawyer in February, in which she said: “I received your words and they gave me courage to go on. Don’t consider this a disaster. I’m looking forward to seeing you again. I hope we can stay together forever.”
Although the four were released on bail in mid-April, police continue to keep a watch on them and restrict their movements.
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