When one by one, the friends of a young woman living in Beijing began disappearing — detained by the police after attending a vigil together weeks earlier — she felt sure that her time was nearing.
“As I record this video, four of my friends have already been taken away,” the woman, age 26, said, speaking clearly into the camera in a video recording from late December obtained by CNN.
“I entrusted some friends of mine with making this video public after my disappearance. In other words, when you see this video, I have been taken away by the police for a while.”
The woman — a recent graduate who is an editor at a publishing house — is among eight people, mainly young, female professionals in the same extended social circle, that CNN has learned have been quietly detained by authorities in the weeks following a peaceful protest in the Chinese capital on November 27.
That protest was one of many that broke out in major cities across the country in an unprecedented showing of discontent with China’s now-dismantled zero-Covid controls.
CNN has confirmed that two of those eight were released on bail Thursday evening and Friday, respectively, just days ahead of the Lunar New Year. One release was confirmed to CNN on Friday by her lawyer, who declined to comment further on whether she had been charged with a crime. The second was confirmed by a source with direct knowledge.
CNN has not been able to confirm whether others were released and if so, how many.
Two of the young women detained, including the editor, have been formally charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” people directly familiar with their cases said Friday — a step that could bring them closer to standing trial, with neither granted bail as of that day.
The overall number of people detained in connection with the protests within China’s notoriously opaque security and judicial systems also remains uncertain.
Beijing authorities have made no official comment about the detentions and the city’s Public Security Bureau did not respond to a faxed request for comment from CNN. There has been no public confirmation from the authorities involved that these or any other detentions were made in connection with the protests.
CNN followed up on Monday with the district branch that is believed to be responsible for those detained following Beijing’s November 27 protest, but the branch didn’t respond prior to publication.
What is known about these detentions, carried out quietly in the weeks after November 27, stands as a chilling marker of the lengths to which China’s ruling Communist Party will go to stamp out all forms of dissent and free speech — and the tactics used to counter perceived threats.
The account that follows has, except where otherwise indicated, been reconstructed from interviews with three separate sources, who each directly know at least one of the people who were detained and are familiar with the circumstances of others within that circle.
CNN has agreed not to name any sources due to their concerns about retribution from the Chinese state and the sensitivities of speaking to foreign media. CNN is also not naming those detained for similar reasons.
A night-time vigil
Late in the evening of November 27, demonstrators gathered along the banks of Beijing’s Liangma River to remember at least 10 people killed in a fire that consumed their locked-down building in the northwestern city Urumqi. Public anger had grown following the emergence of video footage that appeared to show lockdown measures delaying firefighters from accessing the scene and reaching victims.
Many in the crowd that gathered in the heart of Beijing’s embassy district that night held up blank sheets of white A4-sized paper — a metaphor for the countless critical posts, news articles and outspoken social media accounts that were wiped from the internet by China’s censors. Some decried censorship and called for greater political freedoms, or shouted slogans calling for an end to incessant Covid tests and lockdowns. Others lit their phone flashlights in remembrance of the lives lost in the enforcement of that zero-Covid policy — the lights reflecting on the river flowing below, according to images and reporting by CNN at the time.
While police lined the streets that evening, the mood was largely calm and peaceful.
The editor at the publishing house who joined that night did so “with a heavy heart,” after having heard that others would be mourning the Urumqi fire victims near the river that evening, she said in her video message.
Carrying flowers and notes of condolence for the victims, the editor met up with her friends. Among them was a former reporter who had studied sociology overseas and was a community volunteer during the lockdown in Shanghai.
Another friend, a journalist, attended as well as a teacher and a writer — all young women at similar stages of life — university graduates of the past few years, now starting out their careers.
At least some of those in the circle left before the protests ended that night, grabbing some food before returning home for the evening, unaware that their lives were about to change.
The ‘right to express legitimate emotions’
In the days that followed, their lives began to unravel.
CNN has previously reported that authorities in Beijing used cellphone data to track down those who demonstrated along the Liangma River and call them in for questioning.
Members of that group of friends were among those brought in. Police confiscated or searched their phones and electronic devices and subjected at least one to a urine test, according to one of the sources. Some, like the editor, were initially brought in for questioning, and held for around 24 hours, before they were released.
For those in the group, an uneasy calm descended in the days following. For the editor, she said she felt that could have been the end of it. They felt that what they had done was innocuous and no different from others in the crowd that night, according to people familiar with the thinking of some of those detained.
But just over two weeks later, the round-up of these Beijing friends began. Starting from December 18, four women in the group of friends and one of their boyfriends were detained by police over a period of several days. The editor learned of detentions among her friends with a sense of terror, a source said. She decided that if she were going to be taken away too, it would be better from her hometown in central China than a rented flat in Beijing.
In the video recording, she said she attended the gathering with her friends that night because they had the “right to express their legitimate emotions when fellow citizens die” as people who care about the society they live in.
“At the scene, we followed the rules, without causing any conflict with the police … Why does this have to cost the lives of ordinary young people? … Why can we be taken away so arbitrarily?” she asked.
But on December 23, after returning to her hometown, she too was taken into custody, according to two people familiar with her situation. Several days later, her friend, the sociology graduate, was also detained while visiting her hometown in southern China, becoming the seventh person in the circle to be taken in by police.
After their detentions, another friend began reaching out to their families, who were from different parts of the country and not previously in contact, in the hopes of helping coordinate the young women’s defense, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Earlier this month, that friend, too, was detained, according to two sources.
People who know them echoed a sense of confusion over the detentions in interviews with CNN, describing them as young female professionals working in publishing, journalism and education, that were engaged and socially-minded, not dissidents or organizers.
One of those people suggested that the police may have been suspicious of young, politically aware women. Chinese authorities have a long and well-documented history of targeting feminists, and at least one of the women detained was questioned during her initial interrogation in November about whether she had any involvement in feminist groups or social activism, especially during time spent overseas, a source said.
All felt the detentions indicated an ever-tightening space for free expression in China.
“To be honest, I think the logic of arresting them is quite unclear,” said another source who knows them. “Because they are really not particularly experienced (with activism) … judging from this result, I can only say that this is a very ruthless suppression of some of the simplest and most spontaneous calls for justice in society today,” the person said.
“If they were arrested and imprisoned because they went to participate in this peaceful protest, I feel that maybe any young person who loves literature and yearns for a little bit of so-called ‘free thought’ could be arrested,” said an additional person. “This signal is terrifying.”
As popular frustration from three years of zero-Covid lockdowns, mass testing and tracking boiled over into demonstrations of a type not seen since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement of 1989, security forces largely refrained from an immediate overt, public crackdown that could have risked condemnation at home and abroad.
Instead, in the days that followed, security forces were dispatched to the streets en masse to discourage further demonstrations, with police patrolling streets and checking cell phones, while also tracking down participants, warning them not to participate further or bringing some in for questioning, according to CNN reporting at the time.
Even by December 7, as the government, amid mounting economic pressure, relaxed the Covid-19 policies that had sparked those protests, signs had already begun emerging of how much the Party viewed those who had gathered on the streets as a threat.
In what appeared to be the first official acknowledgment of the protests on November 29, China’s domestic security chief, without directly mentioning the demonstrations, called on law enforcement to “resolutely strike hard against infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces,” state-run news agency Xinhua rep