Lest We Forget: The Disappeared Women of 2023
If attending a mourning event out of sympathy is a crime, how much room is left in this society for sharing our feelings?
—Cao Zhixin, referring to the demonstrations in the wake of a fire in Ürümqi that killed at least 10 people in November 2022
Following almost three years of increasingly stringent Covid-19 control policies, in November 2022 a series of protests erupted across China. The unrest began early in the month among workers struggling for survival in Zhengzhou and Guangzhou. After a residential building fire in Ürümqi killed at least 10 people due to pandemic lockdown measures on 24 November, students and other ordinary citizens also started taking to the streets. Between 26 November and 4 December, more than 68 protests were documented across 31 cities. The demonstrations that took place in this period have been dubbed the ‘white paper’ (白纸) or ‘A4’ movement, as many protesters held up blank sheets of white paper as a symbol of defiance.
Less than two weeks after the A4 movement began, the Chinese Government suddenly terminated its Zero-Covid policy. However, the promise to ‘resume normalcy’ was soon followed by large-scale quiet crackdowns. Using surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology, cellphone data, and informants, the Chinese authorities have since rounded up numerous protesters across the country. While the exact number of arrests remains unclear, in January 2023 the organisation Chinese Human Rights Defenders estimated that at least 30 people had been taken into custody and more than 100 detained, with some freed or released on bail pending trial. The Beijing police are reported to have conducted the most aggressive campaign, arresting over 20 people since December, four of whom—Li Yuanjing, Li Siqi, Zhai Dengrui, and Cao Zhixin—have been formally charged with ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’, a notoriously vague charge that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison. All the arrests in Beijing were related to a public vigil for the deaths in Ürumqi that took place at Liangma Bridge on the night of 27 November 2022.
With this gallery, we bring you not only the faces and stories of the committed female activists whom we already documented in 2019 and 2021, but also some of those young women who became ‘accidental symbols of defiance’ in the A4 movement. There are some similarities between the cases of 2023 and those of 2019 and 2021. Most were detained without trial and barred from seeing their lawyers and families, making it difficult to ascertain their conditions. Some of them were charged with ‘inciting subversion of state power’ and many with ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. There is a major difference as well. Unlike the long-standing committed labour and feminist activists we portrayed in 2019 and 2021, many of those arrested in the wake of the A4 movement are well-educated women in their twenties from all walks of life, including freelancers, accountants, writers, journalists, musicians, teachers, and students. None of them expected that attending a vigil could lead to criminal detention.
Li Yuanjing 李元婧
On 27 November 2022, Li Yuanjing, a 27-year-old professional accountant, discussed the deadly fire in Ürümqi with friends in a Telegram group. Driven by anger and frustration, later that night she and her friends joined a public vigil at Liangma Bridge to mourn the victims. The Beijing police arrested her in the early morning of 29 November 2022. Like many who were taken away that day, Yuanjing was then released after being detained for around 24 hours, but her electronic devices were confiscated. Since she happened to be the administrator of the Telegram group, the police considered her a ‘primary target’. She was then re-detained on 18 December 2022, just four days before her 27th birthday. Yuanjing, together with Li Siqi, Zhai Dengrui, and Cao Zhixin, was formally charged with ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ on 20 January 2023.
Growing up in Tianjin, Yuanjing obtained her bachelor’s degree from Nankai University, followed by a master’s degree in Professional Accounting from the University of New South Wales in 2019. After graduation, she returned to China and worked at a multinational firm in Beijing. She loved astronomy since she was very young and would travel across the world to capture a total solar eclipse and spot shooting stars. According to a high school friend , Yuanjing’s WeChat account disappeared after her arrest.
Li Siqi 李思琪
Li Siqi, born in 1996, was taken away by the police on 18 December 2022, the same day as Li Yuanjing. Like Yuanjing, she had been arrested by the Beijing police in the early morning of 29 November 2022 and then formally charged with ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ on 20 January 2023. On her personal website, Siqi introduces herself as a freelance writer, independent photographer, and independent planner and executor of small-scale events.
After graduating with a master’s degree from Goldsmith College at the University of London in 2021, she went back to Beijing and tried to make a living as a freelance. She wrote for various platforms, focusing on issues related to gender, subculture, mental health, and contemporary art. She is also one of the chief editors of the independent magazine Ejaculation. In addition to writing, Siqi took photos and organised small-scale events in cooperation with organisations such as 706 Youth Space (Beijing), Zero to One (London), and Zenflo (Beijing).
In her writings, Siqi expressed concerns about social problems, including young people’s deteriorating working conditions. In a 2022 article titled ‘Young People are Damaged by Work’, she details her working experience in cultural industries where income was so low that she could barely afford rent. At some point, she had to ask her parents for financial help, which made her feel ashamed. In the article, she asks: ‘Why can’t we conduct a dignified job with dignity? … Even when I have escaped from the employment contract, I can’t look away from unaffordable housing, the devaluation of education, and low social welfare. These constitute indirect exploitation. When I try to imagine an alternative, I realise that … there is no real way out. This is a mechanism that does not allow failure and withdrawal.’
Zhai Dengrui 翟登蕊
Following the arrest of Li Jingyuan and Li Siqi, Zhai Dengrui was taken away by the police on 22 December 2022 and then formally charged with ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ on 20 January 2023. Dengrui was born in Gansu Province in 1995. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in social work from a university in Fujian Province and a master’s degree in world literature and comparative literature from Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Before being arrested, Dengrui was preparing to apply for a degree in theatre education in Norway. Her first full-time job was as a theatre teacher at an elementary school. After that, she became a tutor for an online education school. However, after the government launched a crackdown on the private education industry in 2021, she was tasked with doing live streamings to sell supplementary books for kids and elementary students. Although she now had a higher income, she was tired of a job that she perceived as emotionally alienating. Before she could resign, she found herself suddenly dismissed by the company. After a month of unemployment, Dengrui found a new job in the same industry.
Apart from her full-time job, Dengrui cares about social issues, especially in relation to gender. In her spare time, she used to participate in reading groups and movie screenings held in independent bookstores and joined several theatre groups. She was also actively involved in organising feminist activities, including literature and drama salons on feminism, a reading group on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and a screening on the situation of women in Iran. In a diary entry, she documented how she felt about the current state of the world: ‘2022, the war erupted. While the war is happening, I’m live-streaming, crying out for customers to shop and to pay attention to children’s education and future.’ Dengrui asked: ‘What is education? What is future?’ Hadn’t she lost her freedom, today she would be able to explore these questions by studying theatre education in Norway.
Cao Zhixin 曹芷馨
27-year-old Cao Zhixin was taken away by police from Beijing on 23 December 2022, while she was at her family home in Hunan Province. This makes her the last of the four women listed so far to be detained. Zhixin graduated from Renmin University with a master’s degree in 2021 and then became an editor at Peking University Press. On the night of 27 November 2022, after learning about the Ürümqi fire, she and her friends brought candles and flowers and wrote down some poetry to mourn the victims at Liangma Bridge. She was arrested in the early morning of 29 November. Like others, she was released in a few hours but had to leave her electronic devices at the police station, including her mobile phone, computer, and iPad.
Three weeks later, Zhixin learned unexpectedly that some of her friends, including Li Yuanjing, Li Siqi, and Zhai Dengrui, had been detained. Zhixin was totally unprepared and did not expect that participating in a mourning event would lead to serious consequences. In anticipation of her arrest, she recorded a video that she sent to her friends. In it, she asks: ‘We don’t want to be forced to disappear … if attending a mourning event out of empathy is a crime, how much room is left in this society for sharing our feelings?’
On 20 January 2023, Cao Zhixin was formally charged with ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. The Chaoyang Detention Center officials blocked Cao’s lawyers from seeing her on 15 March 2023. Zhixin is now in incommunicado detention, with the police refusing to let her contact her lawyers and family.
Kamile Wayit 卡米莱·瓦依提
Kamile Wayit, a 19-year-old Uyghur woman, has been detained since 12 December 2022. According to her brother Kewser Wayit, this is possibly linked to a WeChat post she wrote about the A4 movement and the Ürümqi fire. Kamile was a freshman majoring in preschool education at the Shangqiu Institute of Technology in Shangqiu, Henan Province. She was taken away by police from Artush City, Xinjiang, when she was at home for winter break. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Kamile’s brother revealed that Kamile had suffered from trauma and depression in an Ürümqi high school when her father was put in a ‘reeducation’ camp between 2017 and 2019. Unfortunately, details of Kamile’s case remain unknown.
Wuyi, known only by her online nickname, has been detained by the police of Pei County, Jiangsu Province, under the charge of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ since early March 2022. In late January 2022, the video of a woman chained to a concrete wall by her neck in a rubbish-filled building in Feng County, Jiangsu, sparked public outrage and wide-ranging discussions on human trafficking, forced marriage, and women’s oppression in Chinese social media. Six days after the video went viral, Wuyi and Quanmei, two friends living in Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces respectively, drove to Feng County to offer support to the chained woman. They sent a bouquet of flowers to a hospital where the chained woman was said to be hospitalised and left a card that read: ‘The world has not abandoned you. The sisters are here.’ They also conducted street interviews with local residents and posted daily online updates of their travels urging people to pay attention to the case.
However, when Wuyi went to a police station after her phone had been forcefully taken away by a man outside the hospital, she and Quanmei were both detained for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. They remained in detention for five days, from 11 to 16 February. Meanwhile, journalists and visitors were prevented from entering the village where the chained woman lived with the excuse of pandemic control measures. After being released, Wuyi recounted her experience in the detention centre and exposed the brutality of the local police on Weibo. She went missing again in early March 2022. Fourteen days later, it was confirmed that she had been re-detained by the police. Wuyi’s posts and social media accounts have since been deleted, and the Free Wuyi campaign has also been censored on Chinese social media. One year later, there is no information about her current situation. As for the chained woman, authorities continue to closely guard her, making it impossible to get access to her, even though in April 2023 a Chinese court sentenced her husband to nine years for abuse and illegal detention and other five people who sold her and kept her captive to terms between eight and 13 years.
Huang Xueqin 黃雪琴
Huang Xueqin is an investigative journalist and feminist activist previously profiled in our Lest We Forget gallery for 2021. She extensively covered the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and in universities, contributing to China’s #MeToo movement. Xueqin and labour activist Wang Jianbing were taken away by the Guangzhou police on 19 September 2021 and subsequently charged with ‘inciting subversion of state power’ without access to legal counsel of their choice. It was not the first time Xueqin had been harassed by police. On 17 October 2019, she had been detained for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ and placed under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RDSL) for three months, before being released on bail in January 2020.
At the time of writing in April 2023, Xueqin and Jianbing have been held in detention without trial for more than 18 months. Since her detention began in 2021, Xueqin has suffered from deteriorating health conditions and needs urgent medical support. According to the Free Xueqin and Jianbing Campaign, Xueqin has experienced symptoms of hormonal imbalance, stopped menstruating for five months in a row, suffered severe calcium deficiency, low glucose levels, low blood pressure, weight loss, pain in her lower back, and emotional stress, all of which would cause permanent damage to her long-term health if not treated promptly and appropriately. In addition, Xueqin is also said to be subjected to random interrogations in the middle of the night and repeated sleep deprivation. It is difficult to obtain updates about Xueqin’s health status, as she has been forced to use a government-imposed lawyer and her family is under heavy surveillance.
Li Qiaochu 李翘楚
Born in 1991, Li Qiaochu is an activist with a long history of campaigning for women’s and labour rights. She came to the fore as an important voice in Chinese civil society during the forced evictions of migrants that took place in Beijing at the end of 2017—a topic that she discussed in this co-authored essay for the Made in China Journal.
At the end of 2019, Qiaochu attempted to draw attention to the latest crackdown on civil rights activists, which included among its targets her partner Xu Zhiyong, a leading Chinese human rights lawyer. At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, she participated as part of a volunteer team to provide free masks to sanitation workers and help women suffering from domestic violence. As a consequence, she was put under close surveillance, with public security agents stationed outside her house and following her anywhere she went. On 16 February 2020, just a few hours after Xu Zhiyong was detained, she went missing. China’s state security bodies would hold her incommunicado until 19 June under the RDSL system on suspicion of ‘inciting subversion of state power’. After her release, she published this account—which we translated and republished with her permission—in which she recounted the uncertainty and terror that she experienced in the four months she spent in detention.
In the following months, she unceasingly spoke up for her detained partner. In December 2020, she accepted the PEN America 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on his behalf. Forced into house arrest, on 5 February 2021 she tweeted about Xu Zhiyong and activist Ding Jiaxi having been tortured in detention. The following day, police from Linyi County, the locality in Shandong Province where Xu was detained, travelled to Beijing and took her away. She was formally arrested on 15 March 2022 on charges of ‘inciting subversion of state power’ and to this day remains under detention. Having been diagnosed with depression two years ago, according to her lawyer and friends her mental health has now further deteriorated due to long-term harassment and detention. She was awarded the Netherlands Embassy Tulip in December 2022. Since then, there has been no update about her condition. Meanwhile, in April 2023 Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to 14 years and Ding Jiaxi to 12 years for subversion of state power.
Zhang Zhan 张展
Zhang Zhan, a lawyer-turned-citizen journalist, was sentenced to four years in jail in December 2020. She was charged with ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ for her coverage of the Chinese authorities’ initial handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. In February 2020, Zhang travelled from Shanghai to Wuhan to document what was happening at the epicentre of the first coronavirus outbreak. For more than three months, she wrote critical essays and live-streamed her video reports from Wuhan’s streets and hospitals on social media, including WeChat, Twitter, and YouTube. Her first video post on YouTube was entitled ‘My Claim to the Right of Free Speech’.
She went missing in Wuhan in mid-May 2020, and was later revealed to have been taken by the police and detained in Shanghai. Since June 2020, she has been on an intermittent hunger strike in protest against what she called an ‘unlawful detention and indictment’. In August 2021, she was hospitalised for 11 days due to severe malnutrition after an extended hunger strike. In October 2021, her brother said that she was severely underweight and close to death. Zhang’s family has sought medical parole, but to no avail.
Zhang, 39, was born in Shaanxi Province, and started a career as a lawyer in Shanghai in 2010. She began participating in human rights and political activism in 2013. She was previously warned by police for allegedly inciting subversion in 2018, and in April and November 2019 was detained for voicing support for Hong Kong activists. Among a number of other ‘citizen journalists’ detained or disappeared for their coronavirus reporting in China, Zhang was the first known to be sentenced. In 2021, she was awarded the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Award in the category ‘Journalistic Courage’. Despite the many voices all over the world calling for her release, the Chinese authorities still refuse to let her go.
28 December 2022 marked two years of Zhang Zhan’s four-year sentence. In a letter that she wrote to her family in October of that year, she offered some words of comfort to her ailing mother who had been diagnosed with cancer and discussed her life in prison. Zhang Zhan still has more than one year left on her sentence.