Chinese Authorities Must Release “Blank Paper” Protesters and Allow Free Expression on COVID-19 Pandemic


(Below is a joint statement supported by the Uyghur Human Rights Project and 24 other human rights organizations on International Women’s Day calling for the release of four women arrested in Beijing for taking part in the Blank Paper protests)

March 8, 2023

On International Women’s Day, 25 organizations call on the Chinese government to release and drop all charges against editor Cao Zhixin (曹芷馨), writer Li Siqi (李思琪), accountant Li Yuanjing (李元婧), and teacher Zhai Dengrui (翟登蕊). Beijing police arrested the four women for participating in a memorial protest on November 27, 2022. We also call on Chinese authorities to release and drop charges against all other individuals in China detained for freely expressing themselves during the “Blank Paper” protests of November-December, many of whom were women, and to end its suppression of speech about the COVID-19 pandemic.

On November 27, Cao Zhixin, Li Siqi, Li Yuanjing, and Zhai Dengrui and dozens of other Beijing residents attended a memorial on the banks of the Liangma River to commemorate the victims of a fire in Urumqi in the Uyghur region three days prior. The vigil morphed into a protest against the Chinese government’s then-in-place “zero-COVID” policies as well as expressions of broader discontent with the Chinese Communist Party. It was part of a wave of protests in China that broke out in reportedly at least 31 cities that weekend. Two days after the protest, on November 29, Beijing police summoned the four women and other attendees for questioning, and confiscated their phones and other devices. They were then released.

Beijing Chaoyang District police returned and criminally detained Li Siqi and Li Yuanjing on December 18, Zhai Dengrui on December 22, and Cao Zhixin on December 23. Other individuals were detained during this police sweep but later released on bail. Cao recorded a video after the detentions began which was released by her friends on January 16. In the video she said several of her friends were forced to sign blank criminal detention notices that didn’t list any charges. She also asserted the motivations of the group: “We care about society. What we did was a normal expression as citizens.”

On January 19, 2023, the four women were formally arrested on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and the following day Cao Zhixin was granted the first visit with her lawyer. All four are being held at Chaoyang District Detention Center in Beijing. The detentions of Cao Zhixin, Li Siqi, Li Yuanjing, and Zhai Dengrui appear to be solely in retaliation for attending the November 27 protest and using the Telegram messaging app, which many protesters used to organize. They face up to five years in prison, or ten years if their offense is deemed serious.

These four women, all in their mid-20s, had no activism background. Their friends describe them as feminists with global perspectives, an interest in literature, and combating social injustice. They had all recently graduated with postgraduate degrees from prestigious universities. Cao Zhixin worked in a “dream job” as an editor with Peking University Press, Li Siqi and Li Yuanjing had both studied overseas, and Zhai Dengrui had planned to apply to study in Norway.

On February 17, the European Union called on the Chinese government to release all four women, asserting that they had been detained in disregard of due process requirements.

These four women have not committed any offense under international or domestic Chinese law. China’s constitution purports to enshrine the right to freedom of speech and the right to freely express criticism of government policies. By targeting Cao Zhixin, Li Siqi, Li Yuanjing, and Zhai Dengrui with criminal prosecution, the Chinese government is violating their internationally recognized rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

The following 25 organizations call on the Chinese government to immediately and unconditionally release Cao Zhixin, Li Siqi, Li Yuanjing, and Zhai Dengrui and all other “blank paper” protesters, and to end its crackdown on free expression around the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Access Now
  • ARTICLE 19
  • Campaign for Uyghurs
  • Chinese Human Rights Defenders
  • CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
  • Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation
  • English PEN
  • FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
  • Freedom House
  • Georgetown Center for Asian Law
  • Hong Kong Democracy Council
  • Human Rights in China
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Humanitarian China
  • Independent Chinese PEN Center
  • Index on Censorship
  • International Service for Human Rights
  • Judicial Reform Foundation
  • National Committee of the Democratic Party of China
  • PEN America
  • PEN Canada
  • PEN International
  • PEN Sweden
  • Uyghur Human Rights Project
  • Washingtonians Supporting Hong Kong (DC4HK)