First, the accountant and the freelance writer were taken away. Then, the former tutor with a degree in English literature. And several days later, the police came for the editor at the Beijing publishing house.
The four detained women were friends. They spent their free time in China's capital as many curious, creative-minded young people did: hosting book clubs, watching movies, discussing social issues like feminism and L.G.B.T.Q. rights over barbecue. When protests against coronavirus restrictions broke out in November across China , including in Beijing, they attended. And now, they are among the first people known to have been formally arrested in connection with those protests.
China is waging a campaign of intimidation against people who joined the demonstrations, which were the boldest challenge to the Communist Party's rule in decades and an embarrassing affront to its leader, Xi Jinping.
The party seems determined to warn off anyone who may have been emboldened by the remarkable outburst of public discontent, which was followed just days later by Beijing's abrupt decision to abandon Covid restrictions. Since then, domestic challenges have mounted: Youth unemployment is high, the economy is slowing, and Covid infections and deaths have accelerated.
The authorities have not officially announced the arrests and have largely avoided even acknowledging the protests. In seeking to tamp down unrest without further inflaming public anger, the party has often favored discreet repression .
But news about the arrests — as well as the interrogations and detentions of many other protesters — has circulated widely among those who attended the demonstrations, or who cheered them on as hope for a rebirth of civil society. For many, the crackdown is a fresh reminder of the authorities' intolerance for even peaceful dissent, and of the personal risks that come with testing Beijing.
The party is also working to discredit the protesters by casting them as tools of malevolent foreign powers. Beijing has long dismissed dissent at home — from calls for women's rights to pro-democracy activism to ethnic unrest — as the result of Western-backed subversion. The protests against "zero Covid" were no exception: One Chinese diplomat suggested that some of the demonstrators had been "bought by external forces."
The New York Times spoke with several people familiar with the cases of the four women who have been arrested. They requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, to provide details about the women's arrests and interrogations. The people have been closely tracking the women's cases, including from weeks earlier when the police began questioning them. They were either in touch with them before their arrests or with people close to them since they disappeared.
The police have asked the women about their use of overseas messaging platforms or involvement in feminist activities, such as reading groups, according to the people. Chinese propaganda has decried feminism as another tool of foreign influence.
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The women, for their part, have said they were driven by their own convictions and a belief that they had a right, even in China, to voice them. Before she was detained in December, one of the women, Cao Zhixin, the editor, recorded a video that she entrusted to friends to share if she went missing.
"We care about this society," said Ms. Cao, 26, in the video, in which she said that the other three women — Li Yuanjing, the accountant; Li Siqi, 27, the freelance writer; and Zhai Dengrui, the former literature student — had already been taken away.
"At the scene, we respected public order, we didn't provoke any conflicts with the police," Ms. Cao continued. "So why do you still have to secretly take us away?"
It is far from clear that the four women were targeted because of their interest in feminism. Other protesters may have also been arrested. Some Chinese social media users have tried to publicize the names of people missing since the protests, with various crowdsourced lists naming around two dozen people.
But the legal system is opaque and social media is heavily censored, making a thorough accounting difficult. Under Chinese law, the police can detain people for more than a month without formally arresting them.
But even if the authorities had not initially singled the women out for their feminist activities, once they were under investigation, those activities could have made them a target, said Lu Pin , a Chinese feminist activist who now lives in the United States, having faced harassment at home.
"The Chinese government has to look for an explanation that fits their logic, and they don't believe that people organize on their own, according to their own political feeling. There must be a 'black hand,'" Ms. Lu said. "In China, feminism is the last active, visible social movement."
The protest in Beijing on Nov. 27 began as a candlelight vigil for at least 10 people who died in an apartment fire in the far-western region of Xinjiang in November. Many Chinese believed that Covid restrictions had prevented the victims from escaping, though the government denied that.
The women had attended out of grief, Ms. Cao, the editor, said in her video.
"We have legitimate emotions to express when our compatriots are killed, we are full of sympathy for those who lost their lives — that is why we went," Ms. Cao said.
That night, the Beijing police were relatively restrained, even as the vigil turned into a street protest calling for an end to "zero Covid" and greater political freedoms. Officers filmed participants but did not aggressively detain people on site.
One official, witnessed by a Times reporter, told protesters that he also mourned for those who had died in the fire. Another reminded marchers, "No one has touched you."
But that soon changed. In the days afterward, people who had attended protests in Beijing and other cities described being summoned or visited at home by officers, who asked why they had gone to the demonstrations, and with whom. Some were told their phone location data had been used to track them down. China's ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, called the protesters pawns of "foreign forces," then refused to give evidence for that when asked by reporters.
A similar theme may have emerged in the police interrogations of the four women, according to the people familiar with their cases.
The police asked about the women's book clubs, where they had read Chizuko Ueno, a prominent Japanese feminist scholar. They pointed to their use of Telegram, the messaging app, which is blocked in China without special software. At least some of the women had studied overseas.
The police have accused the women of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," the people familiar with the cases said — a vague crime that the authorities often charge critics with to silence them. It is punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.
Reached by telephone, an official with the Beijing public security bureau said that no one would be available for comment until after the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday.
Ms. Lu, the feminist activist in the United States, said the police's evident focus on people who were not prominent organizers, or even apparently part of any larger group, underscored how the authorities had decimated civil society.
"After all the repression, in the eyes of the police, these people have become the most threatening forces," she said. "These communities that normally would not be considered political — people eating together, watching movies, talking about art — at key times, these can have the potential for political activation."
The authorities' primary motivation in moving forward with the cases is probably not suppressing these women in particular, but more generally warning others who might have drawn inspiration from the demonstrations.
While there have been no large-scale repeats of the politically charged protests late last year, sporadic demonstrations on more discrete issues have continued in recent weeks. The government's about-face on "zero Covid" has led pandemic control workers to rally to demand unpaid wages . The soaring deaths and illness that have followed the sudden loosening could also stoke anger, said Steve Tsang , the director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
"In the long term, the damage to the reputation and legitimacy of both the party and Xi Jinping, I think, is significant," Professor Tsang said. And having seen that damage turn into political protest, he added, "intimidation is basically what is being done to make sure that it doesn't come back."
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