Unprecedented nationwide protests against China's strict "zero-COVID" policy last month have subsided amid a drastic easing of restrictions and heavy police intervention, but they are a ray of hope for those who are unhappy with the status quo while still demonstrating the tight grip the state has over its people.

Following the rallies that included calls for President Xi Jinping to step down amid public frustration over lockdowns and other stringent anti-virus measures, some protesters were detained and lawyers supporting them came under pressure from authorities.

File photo shows people protesting against China's strict "zero-COVID" policy in central Shanghai in November 2022. (Kyodo)

A 22-year-old woman who shouted, "We will not become servants, we are members of the public," at a Beijing rally on the night of Nov. 27 had previously thought it would be impossible to be openly critical of her government.

She held up a blank sheet of paper -- a symbol of protest against authorities -- when shouting the slogan. Police later repeatedly called her and visited her home on Nov. 29 for questioning, but the woman feigned ignorance about her participation.

"The white paper symbolizes the fact that we cannot say anything. We young people have lost hope, so we have nothing to fear," she said.

A 29-year-old legal worker called for free speech and the end of PCR testing at the Beijing rally together with a woman in her 30s. The woman felt it would be unwise to ignore a police phone call requesting she turn herself in on the night of Nov. 28 and ended up being questioned.

So far, the man has not been interrogated by the police. He believes "people's actions have given us hope" but despaired at the fact many are unaware that protests had erupted due to heavy information control in the country.

No Chinese media have reported on the rallies and many social media posts related to them have been deleted by authorities.

There has also been a clampdown to prevent a repeat of public protests with police deployed en masse in major cities and those who participated actively identified.

In late November, several dozen lawyers posted their contact information on the internet in an offer of support to those detained following the rallies.

A 34-year-old woman who was detained at a protest in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where COVID-19 was first detected, lamented that she "could not run away" from the authorities and said she felt "disconsolate."

The police have not released the number of people detained at the protests.

A Beijing lawyer who provided legal consultation for detained protesters said he received threats from the authorities who told him organizing a group of lawyers is illegal.

Wang Shengsheng, a lawyer in southern China's Guangdong Province, was compelled to guarantee authorities she will not make the information on detainees public.

The protests did not yet develop into a major anti-government movement as public frustration was eased somewhat by the radical rollback of stringent COVID restrictions.

For the lawyers who supported detainees, however, the battle goes on as recent events have fortified their belief in the value of civil society and the significance of people raising their voices in China.

Beijing lawyer Li Xiaoming is determined to work for the protesters even though doing so could risk disqualification from the profession.

"I had thought China has no future, but voices of young people with firm determination showed me hope," said Li, a Christian and an ethnic Mongolian.

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