May 28, 2024

A Chinese citizen journalist who has been in prison for four years after reporting on the early days of the Covid-19 epidemic in Wuhan will be released on Monday.

Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, traveled to Wuhan in February 2020 to document the Chinese government’s response to what has become the beginning of a global pandemic. She shared her reports on X (then known as Twitter), YouTube and WeChat. She was one of the few independent Chinese reporters on the ground like Wuhan and the rest of China went into lockdown.

In one video, recorded in February 2020, Zhang said, “I can’t find anything to say except that the city is paralyzed because everything is under cover. This is what this country is facing right now… They are imprisoning us in the name of pandemic prevention and limiting our freedom. We shouldn’t talk to strangers, it’s dangerous. So without the truth everything is meaningless. If we can’t get to the truth, if we can’t break the monopoly of the truth, the world means nothing to us.”

In another videoshe showed a hospital overflowing with patients on trolleys in the corridor.

Zhang was arrested in May 2020 and later sentenced to four years in prison for “picking up strife and provoking trouble”, a charge often used against activists. She has been held in Shanghai Women’s Prison since then.

During her time in prison, Zhang, who turned 40 in September, participated in periodic hunger strikes to protest her conviction and treatment. One of her former lawyers, who has since been disbarred, said that when he saw her in the winter of 2020 she was very thin, had a tube in her nose for force-feeding and had her hands tied so she couldn’t. pull out the tube. “People asked me to convince Zhang Zhan to eat something, but she insisted,” the lawyer said.

Her weight is said to have dropped from 11st 8lb (74.8kg) to less than 6st 4lb (40.8kg) at one stage, although she is thought to have been in better health in recent months.

Zhang’s former lawyer said her case was treated “particularly harshly”. “The judge said that her crime was going to Wuhan to conduct interviews and investigations. But in fact, what the judge didn’t like was that she collected that material and posted it on Twitter … and received interviews from so-called enemy media,” the lawyer said, referring to publications such as the US government-funded Radio Free Asia.

Maya Wang, the associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “It is a relief to know that Zhang is being released, given her very poor health in prison, but she should not have been in the first place prison has not been stopped. Her imprisonment should remind us all that the Chinese government has yet to be held accountable for covering up the Covid-19 outbreak, or for the abuses associated with its draconian pandemic restrictions.”

Wang said there were fears that Zhang would not fully regain her freedom after release.

Zhang’s former lawyer said there were likely two outcomes after her release. The first is that she will be sent home. “The other is that she will be sent somewhere to have ‘soft jail’ time for one to three months … based on my experience dealing with so-called sensitive people, there will be a period where they are not allowed to contact have with the outside world, may not move anywhere.”

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Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s China director, said: “We call on the Chinese authorities to ensure that Zhang Zhan is fully free from 13 May. She should be allowed to move freely, to communicate with people inside and outside of China, and to reunite with her family. She and her family must not be subjected to surveillance or harassment, and the Chinese authorities must also ensure that there are no restrictions on her access to medical treatment following her traumatic ordeal in prison.”

Jane Wang (no relation to Maya Wang), a supporter of Zhang’s in the UK, noted that Zhang’s release came shortly after the anniversary of the death of Lin Zhao, a prominent Chinese dissident who was executed during the Cultural Revolution. “Zhang Zhan is young but has the spirit of Lin Zhao in her,” Wang said. She is the equivalent of Lin Zhao in Xi’s era.”

Additional research by Chi Hui Lin

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