As China eases Covid restrictions, protesters fear reprisals

BEIJING/HONG KONG: Late last month, Pei, a Shanghai resident, was one of many people who showed their support for historic protests against China’s Covid-19 borders, including filming several seconds of images of a man stopped at the corner of a street.
Almost immediately, Pei said, five or six plainclothes police grabbed him. He was taken to a police station and held for 20 hours, sometimes with his arms and legs tied to a chair, he told Reuters.
“The policeman who pushed me into the car tried to intimidate me saying that I should be worried if other people find out what I did. , 27 years old. He asked to be identified only by part of his name for fear of reprisals.
Now, as many Chinese residents welcome an easing of lockdown measures that have crippled businesses and fueled unemployment, some protesters picked up by China’s security apparatus face anxious expectation as to their fate.
While Pei and other protesters were released with a warning, some human rights lawyers and scholars note President Xi Jinping’s tough line on dissent over the past decade and say risks of harassment remain and additional lawsuits.
“‘Settling scores after the fall harvest’ is the Party’s way of dealing with people who have betrayed it,” said University of Toronto professor Lynette Ong, referring to the practice of delaying the reckoning until the time is right.
China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a request for comment on what laws they might 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 did not refer to the protests, the Communist Party’s top law enforcement body said China would crack down on “the infiltration and sabotage activities of hostile forces” and would not would tolerate any “illegal and criminal activity”. acts that disturb the social order”.
Asked about the protests, China’s foreign ministry said rights and freedoms must be exercised lawfully.
Fines and prison sentences?
Reuters was unable to establish how many protesters remain in custody. Social media calls for details on the fate of a handful of missing protesters remain online.
The protests, widely seen as a tipping point towards an easing of tough Covid restrictions, have largely died down in several cities after police mounted a heavy presence on the streets.
The repercussions of protests in China have grown in recent years under Xi’s tenure, with the Ministry of Public Security introducing guidelines two years ago that have been used by local authorities to ban protesters from taking jobs. such as tour guides or insurance agents, and also make it harder for their family members to get government-related jobs.
Zhang Dongshuo, a Beijing-based lawyer who has handled rights cases in the past, said sanction levels for protests in China vary widely.
People found to be bystanders could be released with a small fine and up to 15 days in detention, while physical altercations with police could result in jail time for disturbing public order or “inciting quarrels” and caused trouble.
Those who have shouted slogans calling for the ouster of Xi or the Communist Party – as seen in a number of protests across China – risk facing heavier charges of incitement or participation to subversion of the state, Zhang said, which in the most extreme cases are subject to punishment. up to life imprisonment.
Eiro, another protester from Shanghai who was arrested after trying to stop police from taking away another protester, said that during her interrogation, the police particularly wanted to know if anyone had distributed sheets of paper. A4 blanks which were a defining symbol of these protests, as well as the identity of the organizers of the protest.
“Police said there would be no punishment for all of us this time, but they may call us back after further investigation,” she told Reuters on an encrypted messaging app.
Pei, Eiro and other protesters Reuters spoke to said police asked them to sign letters of repentance, with some asking them to read the letters aloud while they were filmed.
During Hong Kong’s long-running anti-China and pro-democracy protests in 2019, thousands of people were arrested but not charged until much later with offenses such as rioting and subversion, and many are still in course of legal proceedings.
“I probably won’t go (protest) again in the short term,” Eiro said. “Everyone was impulsive this time and had no experience. We hadn’t prepared well and there was no mature organization or communication platform that could unite and organize everyone. ”
“Worth it”
During a meeting in Beijing last week with European Council President Charles Michel, Xi attributed the dissent in part to young people frustrated by the pandemic, according to a senior EU official.
Alfred Wu, assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said a harsher crackdown was only more likely if authorities believed the protests were organized and political in nature, rather than leaderless and spontaneous.
“They just arose organically because people were driven by a sense of hopelessness and hopelessness over the endless Covid restrictions,” Wu said.
For some, however, the desire for broader political freedoms remains intact even with the Covid easing measures.
“I don’t think this is good news or a victory in our struggle because what we are asking for is freedom,” Eiro said.
Despite the looming shadow of future retaliation from authorities, Pei said he had no regrets.
“It was worth it. It allowed me to personally see the Communist Party’s control over our speech and to see how deeply the freedom of the people under its rule is restricted.”


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