The life of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, the woman who independently reported on the first coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, is hanging by a thread. She is 1.77 meters tall, but would weigh only 40 kilograms due to a hunger strike. According to her brother, she urgently needs help to avoid dying in captivity.
Zhang was arrested in May last year for “arguing and making trouble,” a broad accusation more often used against dissidents. At the start of the global corona outbreak, early last year, she came to Wuhan from Shanghai, while others were fleeing that city. While Wuhan was locked up, she filmed with her cell phone on the street, in hospitals and in crematoria.
She was not thanked for sharing her reports on Chinese and foreign social media. She reported, among other things, that residents were asked to pay for their corona test themselves. She filmed people waiting in the hallway of a hospital for treatment or who may have already died.
She also gave interviews to Voice of America and The Epoch Times, the medium of the Falungong religious movement banned in China. In December, she was sentenced to four years in prison for spreading false information.
Last Thursday, Zhang received the Press Freedom Award for Courage from Reporters Without Borders, the international organization dedicated to press freedom.
Phone lines disrupted
Zhang Keke, one of Zhang’s lawyers and no relatives, has not spoken to her since her conviction, he says over the phone. The logic behind this is that she no longer needs a lawyer, because her case has already been pronounced.
His contact with her family is also difficult: the lines are usually so disrupted that they can hardly understand each other. Zhang’s family does have occasional contact with her via video link.
Her mother has reported on the internet that her daughter is now so weak that she can no longer lift her head. Zhang, who doesn’t want to be fed, would sometimes be chained to her bed with her hands so she couldn’t pull the force-feed tubes out of her nose. Her brother stated at the end of October that she could die soon. He therefore submitted a request to the authorities for release on medical grounds.
Afterwards early also a group of 163 lawyers and human rights activists in an open letter demanding release. They argue that they would not do so if Zhang Zhan was indeed guilty. That is not the case, according to the signatories. “This is the kind of rare courage of one who sacrifices himself for the common good in times of national crisis, or who gives his life for a just cause,” the letter said.
Also the United States asked earlier this month for release. According to them, Zhang is in arbitrary imprisonment and has been mistreated.
There has been no official response to the family’s request, lawyer Zhang Keke said. He does not think the chance of release is very high. “It hasn’t happened often in the past,” he says. “But if you look at how weak her health is now, it would be humane to do so.”
Warning to others
Ren Quanniu, one of Zhang’s other lawyers, who has since been removed from office, stilt in The Guardian that the imprisonment is intended as a “warning to others.”
In previous cases, such as that of the Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo in 2017, internationally known prisoners were released on medical grounds, but only when it was clear that they would not survive their captivity.
Zhang Keke reports that friends and family have regularly pressured Zhang Zhan to give up her hunger strike. She has always refused. She has always maintained that she is innocent and that what she has done falls under freedom of expression.
Also read: Back to Wuhan: the repression followed corona
Newsletter NRC Today
Every morning an overview of our best pieces and all the important other news