TAIPEI, Taiwan — Police in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou have detained at least four people for more than a week after they attended protests against COVID-19 restrictions in late November, according to activists, family members and friends of the detained.
While many who attended protests in cities across China last month were released after being held for 24 hours — the legal limit on detention before police must file charges — the four Guangzhou residents as of Wednesday have been held for a week and a half.
The detentions came a week after a burst of nationwide protests in the last weekend in November where people demanded freedom from China’s strict pandemic restrictions across several cities in a rare display of direct defiance against the central government. Protesters took to the streets despite great personal risk, knowing that surveillance cameras were pervasive and their social media would be tracked by police.
Now, what the protesters feared — that police would arrest them after the initial wave of action had passed — is happening in Guangzhou.
Among the detained is 25-year-old Yang Zijing, who was at home with a roommate when police burst in on Dec. 4, said Yang’s mother, Gao Xiusheng.
Yang, along with three other protesters in police custody, had all attended demonstrations against the government’s stringent COVID-19 policies in Guangzhou, according to one activist who declined to be named out of fear of retribution. Family members of the other three protesters declined to discuss their cases.
Yang is being held in criminal detention on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” — a vague charge that is often used in political cases. According to a copy of the notice viewed by AP, Yang was being held under criminal detention.
Guangzhou police did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
Though Yang’s mother found a lawyer, police refused to let the lawyer meet with Yang citing pandemic safety, Gao said.
“I said I wanted to take a jacket to my child. The temperatures in Guangzhou have fallen. They wouldn’t let me bring it,” said Yang’s mother, who worries Yang is being held at a police station instead of a pre-trial detention center, where she thinks there would be a bed and blanket.
On the night of Nov. 27, hundreds of people gathered at Haizhu Plaza in the city, following protests in Urumqi and in Shanghai the days before. They were angered by the deaths of at least 10 people in an apartment building fire in Urumqi in China’s northwest that many believed was worsened due to COVID-19 prevention measures.
People came after posts on social media called for a protest at a bridge in Guangzhou, one protester said, but because police were already there blocking the bridge, many wound up at the plaza just opposite.
One person brought sheets of white paper and handed them out, a form of silent protest against state censorship that had come to symbolize the nationwide movement against COVID-19 restrictions that had materialized that weekend.
“I didn’t even know what raising a piece of white paper meant,” Yang’s mother said.
While there were many police officers at the scene and they cleared the crowd fairly quickly, the protesters said no one was detained that night to their knowledge.
A week later, police started rounding people up. Many people were apprehended on Dec. 4, and after being detained for a little more than 24 hours were released, protesters said, echoing the experiences of protesters in Shanghai and Beijing.
The four people, however, remain in police custody. Three of them were taken by police on Dec. 4 for participating in the Nov. 27 protest. Another was taken on Dec. 3 for participating in a separate demonstration.