Arrested for Holding a Blank Paper with Rei Xia

Chinese dissenter, human rights activist, and former political prisoner Rei Xia addresses the 16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.

Full Remarks:

Thank you all. 

Ladies and gentlemen, imagine one day you wake up and realize that you’ve turned into a caterpillar, with your short limbs barely touching the ground, your eyes blindfolded, and your tongue cut off. You’re trapped inside an empty cement room and can’t feel anything except for the cold air flowing over your skin. A giant incandescent lamp hangs over your head; so bright that you can see a red halo when you close your eyes. You can hear people talking around you and water flowing through the ground. You know this is only an illusion created by your devastated brain. But you are grateful to hear anything – even if it’s not real.

This was my life inside a Chinese detention center after the ‘white paper protest’ in 2022. They threw me in solitary confinement for 37 days, and then for 28 days. When they finally released me, I was in a state of schizophrenia, with slurred speech. 

Now, I tell my story as a queer feminist activist in China and survivor of extreme police brutality by the CCP regime.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in 2020, I was living in Scotland pursuing an undergraduate degree. I moved back to Shanghai to wait out the pandemic and dove into feminist and queer activism. Almost immediately, I could tell that Chinese authorities saw us as a threat to their pro-masculine ideology. Police would shut down anything with even a hint of feminism or queerness.

But it wasn’t until 2022 that I had my first direct encounter with the state apparatus. It started with the Xuzhou Chained Woman Incident. You almost certainly remember the video if you saw it online. It showed a woman imprisoned inside a dirty cellar, chained her neck onto the wall. Her so-called husband in the video had raped her repeatedly and forced her to give birth to nine children over 20 years. The video went viral online.

Initially, local officials denied her being a victim of human trafficking, saying that her marriage was legal. Without proper investigative reporters, we the grassroot feminists had to find our way to uncover the truth. It turned out that she had been kidnapped and sold since 1996. We were not at all surprised, as we know her experience was just a tiny window into the pervasive and systematic human trafficking of women in China.

But the secret police wanted to stop us. They forcibly disappeared visitors to her village. They found me & my friends and threatened us to stay away. Also, they took down everything we posted online. As a result, we had to be creative in bypassing the censorship machine. We reposted other people’s posts before they were deleted. We’d blur and distort text into photos, and translate them into minor languages so that AI couldn’t read them. 

As marginalized groups, we always practiced to make our voices heard. We had to act in a way that is completely decentralised, both spontaneous and loosely connected at the same time. That’s why feminists and queer activists could play a major role in the white paper protest, as characterised by its lack of leading role and highly spontaneity.

Throughout the year, the sense of anger & powerlessness didn’t go away. In April, the government mandated COVID lockdowns in Shanghai. Many people were forcibly taken away for isolation, and many others died at home from starvation or suicide. 

In November, a building fire killed 10 Ugyhur people in Urumqi.  And this wouldn’t have happened without China’s strict zero-COVID policy. It turned out to be the last straw.

In major cities across China, people gathered on the street to commemorate the deceased Uyghurs. We brought candles and flowers. We held a blank paper to symbolize the power of silence and mock the censorship. No words were written on the paper, but all the accusations are in our heart. They destroyed our language long ago, and self-censorship is embedded in the way that we speak. But still, here at the protest, we felt each other’s physical presence for the first time.

When I was on the street with other protesters, I lost control of myself and cried so hard. The last time China saw widespread protests was still in 1989. We were lost and disorganised, like new-born babies experiencing fresh air outside the womb. But I could feel the fearlessness among us, and our oppressed emotions finding their way out onto the street. Here in Shanghai, for the first time, we shouted out Voldemort’s name: ‘Down with Xi Jinping, Down with CCP.’ 

The police showed up in full force, blocking the roads, randomly beating up people, and arresting them away. I was also arrested and thrown onto their bus. I saw people screaming in panic attack, their faces covered in bruises and dripping with blood from open wounds. We were forced to hand over our phones and passwords. Anyone refusing to do so was beaten into submission. At the police station, they took our fingerprints, scanned our irises, and stripped us naked for examination. 

After my release, I learnt from my friend that she was beaten severely within the police station. Along with her, there was a girl beaten to concussion, another being kicked hard in the stomach. I did not think too much and decided to post this on twitter. It was a moment when keeping silent means abandoning one’s conscience. Just one day later, police knocked on my door and took me away in front of my mom.

I was charged with “Picking Quarrels and Provoking Troubles,” a common crime used against political activists. They sent me to detention centre and threw me into solitary confinement for 37 days. I couldn’t shower, read, write, or speak to anyone. They took away my glasses so I could barely see my surroundings. During the day, I sat cross-legged on a wooden board. Every minute felt like an hour. And at the sleepless nights, with the incandescent lamp on, every single minute felt like a year. There were four surveillance cameras in my cell, two in the front, and two at the back, just above the squat pit I used as a toilet. But losing my basic privacy couldn’t even compare to the torture I endured just waiting for time to pass. I experienced auditory hallucinations. I lost my sense of time, and I could barely see the line between life and death. 

This is the price for speaking out in China. It’s not strange to see China ranks second to last on the World Press Freedom Index, because any journalist with dignity ends up living in jail.

After my release, I had one year of border control. Police harassed me constantly. They evicted me from my apartment and forced me to a mental hospital for psychiatric evaluation. I couldn’t tell my friends what happened to me because I knew the CCP retaliation would fall on them as well.

Throughout the year, I felt like I was suffocating in a bigger cell. So that’s why I took to the streets again during Halloween, with my clothes covered in layers of white paper. It was my way of commemorating the white paper protest and mourning our loss during the three-year nationwide lockdown that the regime now refused us to discuss.

This time, I was arrested by Guobao, or the secret police, and the rule of law does not restrict them at all. They forbid me from having a lawyer and threatened my mom as well. They beat me, molested me, and tied me to a wooden sleeping board for three days. They also threatened to rape me, shave my head, and detain me for months longer. They forced me to record a staged confession, which I refused. 28 days later, I was released and forbidden to enter Shanghai again.

It is still traumatising to speak about my experience, diving back into the enduring pain inside the single cell. But I’ve never regretted going onto the streets, nor do I regret speaking up against the police violence. My courage doesn’t come from within myself. It comes from my fellow Chinese human rights defenders, feminists, queer activists, and countless ordinary people that stood together on the streets during the white paper protest.

China’s crackdown continues today. Feminist and queer activities have almost entirely disappeared from the public eye. Journalists & lawyers waste away in jail. Their ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs and Tibetans continues. And Uyghur participants of the White Paper protest are still in jail, including Kamile Wayit and Yashar Shohret. Director Chen Pinlin still waits for his sentence after producing a documentary on the white paper protest. 

They hope us to forget. They hope us to turn a blind eye to what is happening in our own land. Above all, they hope us to live in fear. But our voices will not be censored. And our own existence will never be silenced. 

Thank you.

Speakers and Participants

Rei Xia

Chinese dissenter, human rights activist, and former political prisoner

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