©Health & Fitness Journal. FILE PHOTO: People hold white sheets in protest of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions after a vigil for victims of a fire in Urumqi amid ongoing coronavirus disease outbreaks in Beijing, China November 27, 2022. REUTERS/Thom 2/2
By Yew Lun Tian and Jessie Pang
BEIJING/HONG KONG (Health & Fitness Journal) – Late last month, Shanghai-based Pei was one of many people supporting historic protests against China’s COVID-19 curbs, including filming several seconds of footage of a man being arrested on a street corner .
Almost immediately, Pei said, five or six plainclothes police officers grabbed him. He was taken to a police station and held for 20 hours, at times tied to a chair with his arms and legs, he told Health & Fitness Journal.
“The police officer who pushed me into the car tried to intimidate me by saying to worry if other people found out what I had done. I defiantly told him I will let the world know what your police are doing,” said Pei , 27. He asked to be identified with only part of his name for fear of repercussions.
Now that many Chinese residents have welcomed an easing of lockdown measures that have crippled businesses and fueled unemployment, some protesters who have been apprehended by the Chinese security apparatus are anxiously awaiting their fate.
While Pei and other protesters were released with a warning, some lawyers and academics point to President Xi Jinping’s hardline on dissent over the past decade and say risks of further harassment and prosecution remain.
“‘The reckoning after the fall harvest’ is the party’s way of dealing with people who have betrayed them,” said University of Toronto professor Lynette Ong, referring to the practice of deferring reckoning until the time is right .
China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a request for comment on the laws it could use against protesters. Shanghai police also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Pei’s description of how he was arrested or what further action they might take.
Last week, in a statement that made no reference to the protests, the Communist Party’s top body in charge of law enforcement said China was cracking down on “the infiltration and sabotage activities of enemy forces” and not “illegal and criminal” will tolerate acts that disturb the social order”.
When asked about the protests, China’s Foreign Ministry said rights and freedoms must be exercised lawfully.
Fines and jail terms?
Health & Fitness Journal could not determine how many protesters are still in police custody. Social media calls for details on the whereabouts of a handful of missing protesters remain online.
The protests, widely seen as a turning point for an easing of strict COVID restrictions, largely died down in several cities after police put up a heavy presence on the streets.
The impact of the protests in China has increased in recent years under Xi’s tenure, with the Ministry of Public Security two years ago introducing policies used by local authorities to ban protesters from taking jobs such as tour guides or insurance agents their family members to get a job in the public service.
Zhang Dongshuo, a Beijing-based lawyer who has handled human rights cases in the past, said the punishment for protests varies widely across China.
Individuals deemed to be spectators could be released with a small fine and up to 15 days in jail, while physical altercations with police could result in prison terms for disturbing public order or “starting a fight” and provoking trouble.
Those who shouted slogans calling for the ouster of Xi or the Communist Party — as seen in a series of protests across China — could face heavier charges of inciting or complicity in subversion of the state, Zhang said in the most extreme cases are punishable by up to life imprisonment.
Eiro, another Shanghai protester who was arrested after trying to stop police from taking a fellow protester, said that during their interrogation, police specifically wanted to know if anyone had passed out blank A4 sheets of paper that a defining symbol of these protests and the identities of the protest organizers.
“Police said there will be no punishment for all of us this time, but they may call us back after further investigation,” she told Health & Fitness Journal via an encrypted messaging app.
Pei, Eiro and other protesters spoken to by Health & Fitness Journal said they were asked by police to sign letters of contrition, with some asked to read the letters aloud while they were filmed.
Thousands were arrested during the protracted anti-China and anti-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 but were not charged with offenses such as sedition and subversion until much later, and many are still at trials.
“I probably won’t go (protest) again in the short term,” said Eiro. “This time everyone was impulsive and had no experience. We had not prepared well and there was no mature organization and communication platform that could unite and organize everyone.”
“ITS WORTH IT”
During a meeting in Beijing last week with European Council President Charles Michel, Xi attributed part of the dissent to youth frustrated by the pandemic, according to a senior EU official.
Alfred Wu, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said a tougher crackdown is only more likely if authorities believe the protests are organized and political in nature, rather than leaderless and spontaneous.
“They just arose organically because people were driven by a sense of hopelessness and despair over the endless COVID restrictions,” Wu said.
For some, however, the desire for expanded political freedoms remains unbroken even with the COVID easing measures.
“I don’t think this is good news or a victory in our fight because what we are asking for is freedom,” Eiro said.
Despite the looming shadow of future reprisals from authorities, Pei said he had no regrets.
“It was worth it. It has allowed me to see first hand the Communist Party’s control over our speech and how people’s freedom is severely restricted under their rule.”