The protesters facing jail after toppling China's zero-Covid policy

Teachers, accountants and other young professional have vanished into China's murky judicial system. Debi Edward reports

This week, much of the country has returned to work following the Lunar New Year celebrations. And already the Chinese government has confidently declared they have escaped a second wave of Covid infections.

In fact, they have declared the current outbreak almost over and reported early signs of a recovery in the economy too.

It is true that, here in Beijing, life is getting back to normal; traffic congestion being the clearest indication that people are back out and about.

But there are dozens of families who spent the Spring Festival desperately waiting for news about their loved one, and some whose celebrations were crudely interrupted by an arrest.

Details have emerged of many young professionals, who became accidental activists and are now facing the consequences for the role they played in protests which helped sink China’s zero-Covid policy.

At the end of November, hundreds of people in 31 different cities took to the streets to demand an end to the country’s crippling restrictions.

They were largely peaceful demonstrations, but the police have systematically hunted down hundreds of people involved in the so-called White Paper Movement, and several could face jail.

Among the 20-something, well-educated men and women is Zhai Dengrui, a teacher in Beijing, who was detained on the December 22 and has since been formally charged. There is Li Siqi, a writer also based in Beijing, she spent her 27th birthday in custody.

Chinese police officers block off access to a site where protesters had gathered in Shanghai. Credit: AP

There is footage of Xin Shang reading a Shakespeare sonnet to the crowds gathered at the Liangma Bridge in Beijing.

The film artist and Westminster University graduate appears to have drawn the attention of the police with his performance - he was detained on January 7 and charged with endangering public safety.

Li Yuanjing, also known by her English name Nina, graduated from a top University in Australia and works at the accountancy firm PWC. She was arrested in December and is facing criminal charges.

A friend of Nina’s agreed to talk to us if we protected his identity. He told us she isn’t a critic of the government and has never expressed radical views.

She, like many at the Liangma Brigde protests was questioned by police straight after the event but released within 24 hours. It came as a shock to her family and friends when she was detained again on December 18 and formally charged.

Nina’s arrest was confirmed by her friend Cao Zhixin in a chilling video released earlier this month, in which she predicted her own disappearance. It has gone viral everywhere but in China, where her brave words have been censored. Cao is a book editor who was detained in Beijing on December 23.

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We can’t say for certain how many people have been detained, the friends and families of those tracked down by police have been warned to stay silent. So far more than 50 names have been made public.

In Beijing, most have been processed at the Chaoyang Detention Centre. The crime being levelled at most protesters is called "picking quarrels and provoking trouble’". It sounds like a playground offence, but it carries a sentence of up to five years for a first-time offender.

The Chinese judicial system has a near 100% conviction rate, so anyone being held on criminal charges knows they are likely facing time in prison.

Anyone who joined calls for Xi Jinping to resign could face harsher punishment. We spoke to former human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng who believes the charge of subverting state power could also be used. He was released from jail in March last year after serving five years on similar charges.

He told me that the authorities can make the words fit the crime: "Anything you say could be framed as the crime of picking quarrels or subverting the state but actually (in China) the law supports freedom of speech". Freedom of speech and even the right to protest are written in the Chinese constitution.

As the rest of the country move on, there are dozens of young people whose lives have ground to a halt.