A young Chinese woman who was arrested after attending a peaceful protest against Covid-19 restrictions in Beijing last year has been released alongside several of her friends after four months in police custody, according to a source familiar with their situation.
Cao Zhixin, a 26-year-old publishing house editor, recorded a video in December days before she was detained, as she learned of her friends disappearing into detention one by one after they joined a vigil together to commemorate losses they attributed to China’s now-scrapped zero-Covid policy.
Cao was released Wednesday evening, according to a source with direct knowledge. Three of her friends who were detained around the same time in December were also released, according to the source, who learned of their situation through mutual friends.
The circumstances of their release were not immediately clear, nor was it clear whether they still face any charges.
CNN has not been able to contact the women.
Police in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, believed to be handling the cases, hung up when CNN phoned for comment and a fax to the bureau did not go through. CNN’s fax to Beijing’s municipal police department also did not go through.
The women were among eight people, mainly young, female professionals in the same extended social circle, that CNN in January confirmed had been quietly detained by authorities in the weeks following the peaceful protest in the Chinese capital on November 27.
Their detentions garnered global attention, with supporters and rights groups calling for their release and pointing to their case as a symbol of the ever-narrowing space for public expression of dissent in China under leader Xi Jinping.
As she emerged from her months-long detention, Cao remained unaware of the huge attention her case has garnered, according to the source, even as her own words, recorded in a video prior to her detention and released by friends afterward, have been widely viewed and reported.
“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 in that video.
The November 27 event attended by the young women in the group was one of many sweeping through Chinese cities at that time, as young people held vigils and demonstrations, many spurred to the streets in sadness and anger over the heavy human cost of three years of the Chinese government’s draconian zero-Covid policy.
Participants at the event carried flowers to remember the 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.
Some 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, according to CNN reporting at the time.
Following the protests, the Chinese government scrapped its zero-Covid policy in an abrupt about-face that also came in the face of steep economic challenges, though it did not directly acknowledge nationwide protests in public statements.
But authorities also unleashed a security crackdown against what had been the largest showing of public discontent since the 1989 pro-democracy student protests in Tiananmen Square. In Beijing, authorities tracked people suspected of demonstrating, interrogating and detaining some – like Cao and her friends.
The detentions and arrests among that group sparked shock and concern from those who know the women, who described them as young female professionals working in publishing, journalism and education, that were engaged and socially-minded, but not dissidents or organizers.
The overall number of people detained in connection with the protests within China’s notoriously opaque security and judicial systems also remains uncertain, as does the number of people, if any, that remain in custody.
Beijing authorities have made no official comment about the detentions. There has been no public confirmation from the authorities involved that these or any other detentions were made in connection with the protests.
Of the eight detained by January, at least two, including Cao, were formally charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” people directly familiar with their cases told CNN at the time.
The loosely defined charge, which carries a maximum sentence of up to five years, has become a catch-all used by Chinese law enforcement in their crackdown on dissent, protest and advocacy.
Under Chinese law, the two others released alongside Cao would also likely have been formally charged to remain in custody until Wednesday, though CNN has not confirmed their charges.
Two others in the group were released on bail in January, CNN confirmed at the time, while two more were released in February, according to the source familiar with the situation of those released this week. It was not clear whether they were also released on bail.
The source familiar with Cao’s situation said that police still had her phone, and that she had been let go from her editing job.
Teng Biao, a renowned human rights lawyer who took on many politically sensitive cases in China before moving to the US, said if the four protesters were released on bail, their cases would likely be dropped later.
“By law, being granted bail doesn’t mean the case is over. But in practice, many human rights cases (in China) were closed like this,” Teng said.
But while the release of those in the Beijing group, whose circumstances are now known globally, is “welcome news,” he said, they may only be a fraction of those arrested for participating in the protests across the country.
In the case of Cao and those released in Beijing, Teng said, “All they did was attend a peaceful protest, which is not against the law.”
“Nor did it have any harm to society,” he added. “Quite on the contrary, they pushed for progress in society and helped end China’s zero-Covid policy.”