Yicheng Huang, dazed and afraid, narrowly avoided being detained by authorities in Shanghai while participating in historic rallies demanding for an end to China’s COVID-19 regulations, which extended across multiple cities last November.
The unusual demonstrations in President Xi Jinping’s decade in office were quickly quashed by authorities, but they aided in the end of three years of restrictions, sources earlier told Reuters.
Four months later, 26-year-old Huang fled to Germany and decided to speak out in support of fellow demonstrators, some of whom remain in detention.
He is one of the first to publicly reveal his identity, after the vast majority of protesters fell silent under threat of official retribution.
“The moment I was detained was the most terrifying minute of my life. But after having experienced that, I now feel like I won’t be afraid again,” Huang told Reuters from the northern port city of Hamburg, where he is studying for a postgraduate degree.
“I feel like I need to speak up for Cao Zhixin and the other detained protesters… I want to urge more global forces to pay attention to them and Chinese people’s efforts to struggle for their own freedom.”
Immediately following the protests, in which hundreds took to the streets in several cities across the country, police interrogated and detained dozens of participants, according to rights group, lawyers and friends of those individuals.
Many were only held for 24 hours or less or were released after a few weeks in detention.
Reuters could not independently verify the total number of protesters who were detained by police or have been charged and remain in custody.
But Human Rights Watch has said Cao, a 26-year-old book editor, is one of four protesters who remain in detention in Beijing, having been formally charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, which carries a sentence of up to five years.
Reuters could not reach Cao or her legal representatives but one of her friends, who declined to be identified, confirmed she remains in detention.
China’s Public Security Bureau did not respond to a faxed request for comment. The public security bureaus of Beijing and Shanghai could not be reached for comment.
China has not commented officially on the protests, whether they triggered the end of the zero-COVID policy or subsequent detentions. But Xi reportedly told visiting European officials last December that ‘frustrated students‘ were behind the protests.