China: Free All “Blank Paper” Protestors
[Updated: January 20, 2023 10:00am EST；5:00pm EST; January 25 12:00pm EST; February 2, 12:00pm EST]
CHRD urges the Chinese government to immediately and unconditionally release the numerous detained or forcibly disappeared #BlankPaper protestors across China and drop any charges against them. Exercising the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly is protected under international human rights law and China’s own Constitution.
On November 24, a fire at an apartment in Urumqi took the lives of at least 10 people, and likely many more. The solidarity commemorations and protests that took place afterwards in late November to early December 2022 throughout China have become known as the “Blank Paper” or “A4” movement, as many protestors held up blank pieces of paper as a means of protest. There were at least 68 protests documented across 31 cities.
“Settling Accounts After the Autumn”
Almost all of the “Blank Paper” protests were peaceful. With some exceptions, police at the protest sites operated with a degree of restraint, making limited detentions on the scene. However, subsequently, with the aid of street-level surveillance camera footage from protests, and information gathering in interrogations, police carried out numerous detentions, in what is known in Chinese as “settling accounts after the autumn” (秋后算账) – seeking reprisals against adversaries afterwards.
Detainees have reportedly been subjected to abuses intended to break them down. One released detainee in Shanghai told the Washington Post about his time in detention, “We were only allowed to stand and could not talk to each other. They didn’t let us sleep, and if I did, they would knock on the door to wake me up.”
There is also a report that some protesters who were taken into custody and then released in late November have since been re-detained starting on December 18. The focus of some of these detentions seems to be ties to punishing youth with “Western ideology” or connection to “feminists.”
Current “Blank Paper” Detentions
This information about these cases, which CHRD has collected and tried to verify, below, is incomplete – but we will continue to follow these cases and provide updates in this statement and on Twitter.
Since the Chinese government has not publicized nor allowed any press to report about these cases, and also threatened families to keep silent, the cases of detentions described below probably indicate the tip of the iceberg. We believe that it is worth sharing even fragmentary information with the international community given the high likelihood that these individuals are at high risk of enforced disappearance and torture.
At the time of this press release, there are names of 30+ people who were taken into custody; we estimate that at least 100+ people have been detained, and some of them have been simply released or released on “bail pending trial” (取保候审). Under Chinese law, defendants released on “bail pending trial” can see the charges against them dropped if they do not commit further violations of the law, but often remain under close police surveillance for one year. In other cases, involving unknown names or other details, family members are reluctant to go public out of the fears for retaliation from the Chinese government.
The list of detainees below is organized by locations where the detentions are believed to have taken place.
Cao Zhixin (曹芷馨), originally from Hunan who received a Master’s degree in history at Renmin University in Beijing and was working as an editor, Cao was taken away by police after attending a “Blank Paper” protest in at the Liangma Bridge in Beijing. Rights and Livelihood Watch reported that she was taken away with seven other women protestors, but the details were uncertain.
On January 16, Cao’s friends posted to Twitter a video that Cao had pre-recorded in the eventuality that she became a victim of an enforced disappearance. In the video, she said that after the Urumqi Fire she saw that there would be a gathering on November 27 at the Liangma River in Beijing, which she attended with some friends. Starting from the morning of November 29, police started to summon many of the attendees. After being at the police station for roughly 24 hours and receiving warnings, they were released. But, starting from December 18, the police started to take people in again, and they forced her to sign a blank criminal detention notice, which did not state the detention location or suspected crimes. She said that she knew of four people detained in such a manner – Li Yuanjing (李元婧), Yang Liu (杨柳), Deng Deng (登登), and Li Siqi (李思琪).
On December 23, Cao Zhixin was taken away by police from Beijing in her home province of Hunan. [Update 1/20: there is a report that Can Zhixin has been formally arrested on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.]
According to @mamaidonowrong on Twitter, an account CHRD has reason to believe is trying to provide accurate information, and other sources, the police have also made the following detentions in relation to the Liangma Bridge protest in Beijing:
Yang Liu (杨柳), a reporter at The Beijing News (新京报), taken away on December 18 and charged with “disrupting public order”. [Update 1/20: there is a report that Yang Liu has been released on bail]; Liu Yang (刘阳), a T-shirt salesman on Taobao, detained on December 18; Lin Yun (林昀), taken away on December 18, (also the boyfriend of Yang Liu). [Update 1/20: There is a report that Lin Yun has been released on bail]; Li Yuanjing (李元婧), accountant, taken away from home on December 18, but released on bail due to being COVID positive. [Update 1/20: there is a report that Li Yuanjing has been formally arrested on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.]; Li Siqi (李思琪), journalist, taken away on December 18. [Update 1/20: there is a report that Li Siqi has been formally arrested on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.]; Li Feifei (李飞飞), media worker, taken away on December 22; Zhai Dengrui (翟登蕊), teacher, taken away on December 22. [Update 1/20: there is a report that Zhai Dengrui has been formally arrested on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.]; Lin Qian (林倩), taken away after having recovered from COVID on December 27. [Update 1/20: there is a report that Lin Qian has been released on bail]; Qin Ziyi (秦梓奕), director and journalist, was taken away from her home in Shenzhen on December 27. According to a friend posting on the Internet, police made a request to arrest Qin Ziyi on January 12. The Members of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, were Qin was a former student, made a statement expressing concern over her detention. [Update 1/20: there is a report that Qin Ziyi has been released on bail]; Chen Junhui (陈军辉), artist, taken away after returning to Beijing on December 28 from Chengdu. [Update 1/20: Chen was apparently been released on bail].; Jia Xinxu (贾新许), lost contact with the outside world on December 30; Bai Er (白洱), owner of a bar, detained on January 4; Chen Huang (陈晃), although she did not attend protests, she apparently helped people who were detained. Taken away on January 5 and sent to hometown of Chongqing; Kong Che (孔澈), DJ, taken away on January 4; Xiao Shan (小山), followed by police on January 6, and may have had electronics taken away and may be in detention; Yaoyao (摇摇), DJ, taken away on January 6; Chao Ran (超然), financial worker, lost contact with the outside world on January 6. [Update 1/20: On January 20, @mamaidonowrong reported on more people who were taken away in relation to the Liangma protest: Cao Yuan (曹原), was taken from their home in Shanghai by Beijing on police on January 6; “Sister Wang” (王姐), a DJ and worker at the Civil Aviation Administration of China, lost contact with the outside world on January 6; “Little Ocean” (小海), lost contact with the outside world on January 6; XFZ, lost contact with the outside world on January 6; “Nini” (泥泥), a fashion editor, was taken from their home on January 15; “A’Er” (阿尔), a person involved in product operations and a roommate of “Nini” was also taken away on January 15.]
[Update 2/2: On February 1, a lawyer for Zhai Chunming (翟春明), met Zhai at the Chaoyang District Detention Center. Zhai related how he was out with his girlfriend on November 26 playing pool and having a good time when they saw a tweet indicating that there would be an event at the Liangma Bridge to commemorate the Urumqi fire victims. He attended the events, and sang songs, chanted slogans, and held up a blank paper. The next day, he was taken into the Shuangjing police station in Chaoyang District for questioning, but was released after an hour. He was subsequently summoned in for questioning on two other occasions. However, on January 8, 2023, while at his girlfriend’s home, approximately 10 police officers from the Xicheng and Changping police stations detained him, with only one detective wearing a police uniform. They confiscated his work computer, iPad, and other possessions. He has been criminally detained on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”].
[Update 2/2: On January 31, Rights Defense Network tweeted out that nine people related to the Liangma incident remained in detention. Of these, besides people previous mentioned, there was also Xin Shang (辛赏), Sun Yingqi (孙颖琦), You Jinyi (侯金艺)].
Li Yi (李艺), after attending “Blank Paper” protests on Urumqi Road in Shanghai on November 27, Li was taken away by Xuhui District police on November 29 at 11:00 am and later criminally detained on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Li is currently being detained at the Xuhui Detention Center, and a criminal detention notice has been posted to Rights and Livelihood Watch.
Chen Jialin (陈佳林), while attending protests on Urumqi Road in Shanghai and doing a media interview, Chen was taken away by police.
Xia Chaochuan (夏巢川), who tweeted out that Shanghai Tianlinxin Village police had tortured “Blank Paper” participants was taken away on December 5, and has been missing since then, according to sources to the website NGOCN. Another may be detained at the Xuhui Detention Center. [Update 1/25: Xiao has apparently been released].
Qin Chao (秦超), originally from Liu’an in Anhui Province, was taken away by police at 10:00pm on November 27 while attending a protest on Urumqi Road.
A Tibetan student, Tsewang Lhamo (才央拉姆), 23, a student at the Nanjing Communication University in China, was taken away after attending protests in Nanjing on November 26, according to Phayul, a website reporting on Tibetan issues. Reportedly, approximately 60 students were detained at that time.
Huang Hao (黄颢), originally from Chengdu, on November 27, as many in Chengdu gathered at Wangping Street to engage in “Blank Paper” protests. Huang was taken away the next day, along with his wife, who goes by the internet name of “Fat Tiger” (胖虎). They have apparently been criminally detained on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Since going missing, Fat Tiger’s mother went to Chengdu from her native Jiangsu province to look for her daughter. After extensive searching, she eventually found that her daughter is being held at the Chengdu City Shuangliu Detention Center. It appears that Huang Hao has been released.
Xia Er (夏尔), a 24-year-old Uyghur, attended the demonstration on November 27 in Chengdu’s Wangping Road to pay condolences for the victims of the Urumqi fire, and soon thereafter Xia Er was taken away by police on the charge of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”. Xia Er’s father, a retired teacher on a limited income and with frail health, upon hearing of the news of the detention, went to Chengdu to attempt to arrange for a release on bail. After visiting several detention centers in Chengdu over several days, finally the father found that Xia Er was being held at the Pidu Detention Center. Xia Er has apparently been released on bail and has returned to Xinjiang.
According to Tibetan news sources, on December 2, approximately four people from the Garze Tibetan autonomous prefecture who worked in Chengdu and who had taken part in the “White Paper” protests were found to be missing. They are Zamkar (赞嘎), Kelsang Dolma ((格桑卓玛), Dechen (德庆) and Delha (德拉), all women in their 20s. They are believed to have been taken away on December 5. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), they were all detained by police after they returned to their hometowns in Kardze from Chengdu. The government has not provided information on their whereabouts, but a source speaking to RFA said they are being subjected to political reeducation.
Jing Xueqin (景雪琴), after participating in protests in Wuhan, was taken away by police officers on November 28 at 11:30am. Jing was later released according to Rights and Livelihood Watch.
Yang Zijing (杨紫荆), born in 1997 and originally from Shanxi, Yang Zijing, who goes by the Internet name “Dim Sum” (点心), was taken away at roughly 1:00 am on November 28 near the Haizhu Square in Guangzhou. Yang, a prominent advocate in the LGBTQ community, originally went out with a friend at roughly 9:00 pm on November 27 to observe the “White Paper” protests. Sources indicate that she did not engage in any sort of excessive behavior during the protest. Also, according to sources, Yang did not hold up a blank A4 paper, but just wanted to accompany a friend to see what was happening.
On December 4, a male police officer ordered her to open her apartment door under the pretense of “checking her water meter”. After the door was opened, 10+ police officers stormed into her home. They refused to provide identification. They then confiscated electronics, summoned her to the police station without giving an official charge, and threatened her not to tell friends to post news of the raid on the internet. On December 7, the Beijing Road police station in Guangzhou said she had been criminally detained, but the officers in charge would not issue a criminal detention notice to her family. However, the next day, a criminal detention notice did arrive, and it said that Yang had been criminally detained on December 5 by the Yuexiu District Police Station on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and was being detained at the Yuexiu District Detention Center, but then transferred to the Guangzhou Number Two Detention Center.
On January 3, Yang Zijing was released on bail.
Wang Xiaoyu (王晓宇), from Guangzhou, had been at the “Blank Paper” protest in Guangzhou’s Haizhu Square on November 27. On December 4, Wang was taken away by Yuexiu District police and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Wang was at the Yuexiu District Detention Center, and a criminal detention notice has been posted to Rights and Livelihood Watch. Police refused to allow visits by family of lawyers, but Wang is apparently now out on bail.
According to Rights and Livelihood Watch, other detained “White Paper” protestors include: Jin Jiawei (金嘉伟), Lin Duidui (林怼怼), Chuan Chuan (川川), Wang Chenhao (王晨皓), Li Mu (李牧), Wang Daiyue (王黛玥), Wang Hao(王昊), Zhang Donghui (张东辉), Wei Hai (魏海).
On November 29 at night, a student held up a white piece of paper at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University and was subsequently taken away by university leaders and security staff. In Ningbo, Zhejiang province, four students were taken away after mourning for the Urumqi victims. One has apparently been released, but three remain unaccounted for.
We Call on the International Community to Take Action
We are at a critical junction for maximum pressure on Chinese authorities to free the detained protesters, avoiding the worst-case scenario for the detainees.
According to the PRC Criminal Procedure Law (Article 91), once a person has been criminally detained, police have up to 30 days to request an approval for formal arrest of the suspect, and the prosecution then has 7 days to issue a decision to approve that arrest. In practice, this means that once a person has been criminally detained there is often a 37-day window for the Chinese authorities to calculate if there is the political will to go through with the legal procedures in the books – formal arrest, indictment, and trial. Credible international pressure at this time could play a role in affecting authorities’ calculations.
With a conviction rate of roughly 99.9% in the China judicial system, and with the police, prosecution, and court all cooperating with and being controlled by the Communist Party and its top leadership, there is no independence of the judiciary. The guilt or innocence of a suspect is rarely determined in the courtroom. Trials are little more than a legalistic rubber stamp to a process that was already decided by a political oversight body.
In practical terms, the 37-day window often provides the strategic “off ramp” for authorities to drop a case. For instance, apparently the police made a request to arrest Qin Ziyi on January 12 along with several other individuals from the Liangma Bridge protests in Beijing, although CHRD cannot independently confirm this. If this information is accurate, the approval for formal arrest may have been made on January 19, or the prosecution may be making the decision imminently. With many of the detentions of protestors taking place in mid- to late-December, authorities will soon decide what to do with many of the people listed above.
The time to speak out and take other strong actions is now.
CHRD urges the United Nations human rights experts to take urgent action, calling on the Chinese government to release all of the “Blank Paper” movement participants and remind the government of its human rights obligations. Pending their release, the detainees should be granted access to lawyers of their choices. Lawyers should not face harassment or obstacles in visiting and providing legal counsel to their clients.
CHRD asks the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who is set to travel to China on February 5-6, to ask his interlocutors for the release of the “Blank Paper” protesters and others detained or imprisoned for exercising their rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.
CHRD urges corporations, sports, and cultural institutions with business and other engagements in China to speak up, expressing concern about the current crackdown on dissent and the government’s disregard for the rule of law.