A Chinese woman has accused police of forcing her and friends to sign blank arrest warrants and detaining them in secret locations over their attendance at a protest vigil in Beijing last year.
A video, purported to be of Cao Zhixin, a 26-year-old editor at Peking University Press, began spreading online on Monday. In it, Cao said she and five friends attended a riverside vigil in Beijing on 27 November, to mourn the victims of a building fire in Urumqi. The fire had been linked to the enforcement of China’s strict zero-Covid policy and became a catalyst for vigils and protests.
They were summoned by police a few days later, and released after 24 hours, the video said. However between 18 and 24 December, all were detained again, Cao being the last of them.
She said she recorded the video after several friends were detained. She gave it to unnamed friends with instructions to publish it if she were arrested.
“When you see this video I have been taken away by the police for a while, like my other friends,” the video says.
Cao said her friends were made to sign blank arrest warrants, without criminal accusations listed, and that police refused to reveal the location of their detention.
Her video was widely shared on western social media platforms and in messaging groups which monitor human rights in China. However, there was little sign of it on China’s internet, which is strictly monitored and controlled.
Cao’s was one of eight protest-related arrests confirmed and reported by NPR last week, although her name was not published at the time. The video also listed several names of people who had attended protests or vigils and had since allegedly disappeared or been detained. The Guardian has not been able to verify the names. On Twitter, a US-based scholar Jing Wang said she recognised Cao as her editor of a translated book.
“We just chatted a few days before she disappeared,” Wang said. “Now, she is still out of reach. It breaks my heart to watch this video.”
Calls to the Beijing public security bureau went unanswered on Tuesday.
By the time Cao and others had gathered at the vigil in Beijing, protests against zero-Covid had already been erupting in some Chinese cities. But the Urumqi fire, one of a string of tragedies linked to the zero-Covid policy, appeared to be a final straw for many. Across major cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, people gathered to mourn the victims, and in protest against the zero-Covid hardships and government censorship.
White sheets of paper held aloft – to stand for what people wished to express but were banned from saying – became a unifying symbol.
A large police presence quickly contained the protests, swarming the sites of planned gatherings, checking people’s ID or their phones for banned communication apps. Social media and WeChat accounts were shut down, and soon reports began to surface of arrests.
The NPR report detailed students and other young people tracked down by police for questioning or arrest, some accused of being protest organisers over their administration of Telegram groups or their appearance in foreign media photographs.
Cao said she and her friends “followed the rules” at the vigil and caused no conflict with authorities.
“We pay attention to the society we live in,” she said. “When our fellows die we have the right to express our legitimate emotions. Our sympathy is for those who lost their lives and that’s why we went to the scene.”