Calls grow among overseas universities, activists for release of Chinese protesters

One group says more than 100 people have been detained, with some likely already released and under surveillance.
By Jenny Tang for RFA Mandarin
2023.02.01
Calls grow among overseas universities, activists for release of Chinese protesters A protester is forced into a car by police during a protest in Shanghai, China, Nov. 27, 2022.
Associated Press

Calls are growing among overseas rights groups, universities and student campaigners for authorities in China to release people – many of them young graduates of overseas universities – detained for taking part in the November 2022 "white paper" protests.

The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders network estimated that more than 100 people have been detained for their role in at least 68 protests that took place across 31 Chinese cities in late November to early December.

>>List of detained protesters  

"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,’" the group said in a statement on its website updated on Jan. 20.

Even detainees released on bail are likely to remain under close police surveillance for one year, it said.

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Credit: RFA screenshot from Twitter

Among the detainees was University of Westminster photography graduate Xin Shang, arrested for taking part in a protest at Beijing's Liangmaqiao, where he was filmed reciting Shakespeare's sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" to police officers, Human Rights in China executive director Zhou Fengsuo said via his Twitter account.

"Xin Shang is innocent, free Xin Shang!" Zhou tweeted.

‘Deep concern’

Xin wasn't the only protester to be drawn to the movement after graduating from a university outside China.

Faculty at the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago have called for the release of alumna Qin Ziyi, who was among those detained.

"[We] are aware that people, including a former student of the University of Chicago, have recently been detained in China due to their participation in peaceful protests where people held blank sheets of paper to express dissent to the government’s Zero Covid policy," the department said in a statement on its website.

"We express our deep concern for the well-being of Qin Ziyi and all those who have been detained and hope they will speedily be released," it said.

In London, Goldsmiths University told the London Tab student newspaper that it is "concerned" about the detention of its alumna Li Siqi.

"We are aware of deeply concerning reports about the detention of a former Goldsmiths student in China for taking part in a peaceful vigil to remember the victims of the Xinjiang fire," a spokesman for the university told the paper, referring to a fatal lockdown fire in an apartment building in the autonomous region’s capital of Urumqi.

“We condemn in the strongest terms the suppression of free speech and urge the relevant authorities to immediately release individuals who were detained in relation to the vigil," he said.

‘Only one voice’

A Chinese postgraduate student in Washington, D.C. who gave only the surname Wu for fear of reprisals said overseas study often broadens the horizons of China’s international students.

"In China, there is only one voice, and it is difficult for anyone to think independently of that voice," Wu said, referring to the official government line. "Studying abroad exposes you to different voices, and the more people know about the stuff that is blocked by the Chinese government, the more likely they are to do something different."

"The Chinese narrative teaches that protests are bad and will lead swiftly to arrest, and that people aren't allowed to gather together to express their opinions," Wu said. "But once you experience living outside China, you find that it's very common and healthy to have different political voices being heard."

U.S.-based rights activist Yang Zhanqing called for more overseas schools of the detained protesters to speak out on their behalf, and call for their release.

"Their arrests are abnormal and illegal, and these schools have the kind of credibility and a public platform that could help get them released," Yang told RFA.

"That way the deeds [of the Chinese government] will be exposed, and more people will pay attention to what they do next," Yang said.

Deprived of rights

Students from the University of New South Wales in Australia recently set up a petition on Change.org calling on their university to speak out for the release of alumna Li Yuanjing, who has been detained for more than a month and will "probably face lengthy imprisonment" for her role in the protests.

"We, current students and alumni of the University of New South Wales, are writing to express our grave concern about the safety of the A4 Revolution protesters in China, and call on UNSW to support its alumna," the petition said, referring to the blank sheets of A4 printer paper held up by protesters at the time.

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Students from the University of New South Wales in Australia have launched a petition on Change.org calling on their university to speak out for the release of alumna Li Yuanjing, who has been detained for more than a month. Credit: RFA screenshot

"Many protesters have been taken away by the police on suspicion of 'gathering to disrupt public order'," the petition said. "Some have even been deprived of their rights to access official legal documents or see their lawyers."

"Although a few have been released on bail, the majority of them have been formally arrested, still held in detention and possibly facing heavy sentences," it said, calling the crackdown "shocking and unacceptable."

"The trend of repression continues at the time of writing," it said.

While Chinese Human Rights Defenders said it had gathered dozens of names of confirmed detainees, some reports were harder to verify, as "family members are reluctant to go public out of the fears for retaliation from the Chinese government."

"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," the group said, warning that detainees "are at high risk of enforced disappearance and torture."

Stepping up pressure

It called on the international community to step up pressure on the ruling Chinese Communist Party while the local authorities were still deciding whether to prosecute detainees, adding that there is a 99.99% conviction rate in China's judicial system.

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A protester scuffles with police during a rally for the victims of the Urumqi fire as well as a protest against China's harsh COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing on Nov. 28, 2022. Credit: AFP

The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Beijing to immediately release and drop all charges against everyone detained for participating in the protests, which were sparked by the lockdown fire in Urumqi, but which also saw calls for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to resign and call elections.

"Young people in China are paying a heavy price for daring to speak out for freedom and human rights," Human Rights Watch's senior China researcher Yaqiu Wang said in a statement on the group's website.

“Attending a vigil and calling for authorities to respect human rights are not crimes,” she said. “The crackdown on protesters only revealed Beijing’s deep fear of the power of the country’s young people.”

The police have also threatened lawyers who tried to provide legal assistance to the detained protesters and suspended a group chat the lawyers use on the Chinese social media app WeChat, the statement said, adding that the authorities have harassed friends of detained protesters who provided them support.

Weibo and WeChat accounts that showed support for the protests were suspended, while a WeChat account that merely posted a picture of a blank paper was permanently removed, Human Rights Watch said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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