Zhang Zhan (simplified Chinese: 张展; traditional Chinese: 張展; pinyin: Zhāng Zhǎn; born 2 September 1983)[1] is a Chinese citizen journalist and former lawyer who travelled to Wuhan in February 2020, from where she reported on the impact of the lockdown measures imposed in the city in response to the COVID-19 outbreak there, and questioned the handling of the crisis by authorities.[2] She was detained in May 2020, and later tortured and sentenced in December 2020 to four years in prison on the charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" (寻衅滋事). She is the first citizen journalist to be sentenced for reporting on the pandemic in China, although at least ten journalists and commentators were known to have been arrested for their coronavirus reporting as of February 2021, with seven remaining missing or detained as of that date;[3] Chen Qiushi reappeared in September 2021.[4]

Zhang Zhan
Zhang Zhan.png
Born (1983-09-02) 2 September 1983 (age 38)
Xianyang, Shaanxi, China
OccupationCitizen journalist
EducationSouthwestern University of Finance and Economics
SubjectsCOVID-19 pandemic in Mainland China

Zhang was hospitalized from 31 July until 11 August 2021 due to malnutrition after an extended intermittent hunger strike.[5] In late October, her mother and brother considered Zhang to be close to death as she continued her hunger strike,[6][7] leading to calls by the United States government, Reporters without Borders,[8] and the United Nations human rights office for her immediate unconditional release.[9]

Activism before 2020

Zhang used to work as a lawyer, but had her license revoked for participation in the Weiquan movement.[10]

In August 2018, Zhang was warned by police for allegedly inciting subversion.[11]

In September 2019, during the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests, Zhang held up an umbrella on Nanjing Road and People's Square in Shanghai in support of the protesters, inscribed with the slogan, "End socialism, Communist Party down." On 9 September, she was detained on suspicion of "disturbing the public order" until 13 November, during which time she went on hunger strike twice.[12][13][14] In April 2019, she had been detained by authorities on the same charge.[11]

Journalism

On 1 February 2020, Zhang travelled from Shanghai, her place of residence,[15] to Wuhan to cover the COVID-19 pandemic there as a citizen journalist.[16][12] In a video published by the portal China Change, Zhang stated that prior to her travel to Wuhan, she had been deeply moved by an online post by a Wuhan resident who expressed feeling abandoned by authorities.[17] In dozens of short, shaky videos which she live-streamed and uploaded on Twitter, YouTube and other social media,[12][18] she documented overflowing hospitals, empty shops, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (multiple times[19]), crematoria, the detention of independent journalists and harassment of families of victims of the pandemic seeking accountability. She also posted essays.[20]

One story on 16 February accused the government of covering up the true numbers of infections and deaths "in the name of maintaining stability", of keeping the media under control, and accused the authorities of "coercively and violently ordering and depriving people of their basic human and property rights" through the imposed strict lockdown.[12] According to Zhang, crematoria in Wuhan were running day and night, during a time when state media claimed that the pandemic was under control.[21] Another video showed her visiting the police station where Li Wenliang had been reprimanded for spreading word about the outbreak, trying to obtain information about his case.[18] In an essay posted in late April, she criticized that those who had lost loved ones due to the pandemic were being "oppressed" by authorities, through not being allowed to mourn.[19] In her last video before arrest, she criticised the lockdown on Wuhan for being unduly harsh, saying that the government had managed the city with "intimidation and threats", and that this was "truly the tragedy of this country."[5]

Citizen journalists have been a source of unfiltered information about the pandemic in China, however, there are very few due to lack of accreditation for them.[22]

Arrest

The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Chinese human rights group recorded that Zhang went missing on 14 May 2020, the day after she had last streamed a live broadcast from near Hankou railway station.[12] Later it was revealed she was detained by police at a hotel near the railway station where she was staying, and transported back to Shanghai.[12][23] In the days prior to losing contact with her friends, she had told them that she was being followed.[12] She was imprisoned without charge until November. Zhang is one of several citizen journalists including Li Zehua, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin who went missing at the same time.[20][24][25] On 19 June 2020, Zhang was formally arrested on the orders of the Pudong state prosecutor. She was held in the Pudong Detention Center.[13]

Torture

According to Amnesty International, Zhang was tortured for three months before sentencing, which involved being kept shackled and in handcuffs 24 hours a day for the entire time and being force-fed;[22] Zhan had been on hunger strike since June 2020 and was since force-fed through a feeding tube, her hands were tied to prevent her from removing it.[26][27][28] Her mother described it as a "partial hunger strike" in which Zhang ate fruit and cookies, but not meat, rice or vegetables.[5] One of her lawyers said that she had begun taking some food after her health had started to decline.[18] Her lawyer Ren Quanniu said that Zhang had told him on previous occasions that her hunger strike was to protest against the curtailment of freedom of speech in China, rather than for being released.[29]

Impact of torture

Zhang was described by her lawyer Ren Quanniu in December 2020 as very weak.[20] She appeared in court in December 2020 in a wheelchair.[5] Another of her lawyers, Zhang Keke, said: "In addition to headache, dizziness and stomach pain, there was also pain in her mouth and throat. She said this may be inflammation due to the insertion of a gastric tube."[26] Her lawyer has stated in late 2020 that she may not survive.[27]

Trial, sentencing and imprisonment

Zhang was charged with picking quarrels and provoking trouble, a charge the Chinese government often uses to imprison opponents, and sentenced to four years in prison.[30] The crime is defined as undermining public order by creating a disturbance in a public place.[31] The indictment sheet accused Zhang of talking to foreign media such as Radio Free Asia and The Epoch Times, and spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan.[30]

Zhang was accused of fabricating two items in her reporting from Wuhan; that residents were forced to pay a fee to get COVID-19 tests, and that residents confined to their homes had been sent rotten vegetables by neighbourhood committees. Zhang maintains these are true.[32]

Supporters, foreign journalists and a British diplomat were blocked from entering the courtroom during the trial, which took place on 28 December 2020 before a Shanghai court and lasted less than three hours in total.[20][33][34][35] Foreign media saw the timing of the trial between Christmas and New Year as aiming to minimise attention in Western countries, a device which China had used previously in the trial of other dissidents.[36] Zhang was sentenced to four years imprisonment making her the first citizen journalist to be sentenced for reporting the pandemic in China.[16][37][38] She is represented by several lawyers including Ren Quanniu and Zhang Keke.[20] She declined to appeal her conviction, telling her lawyers that she saw the legal process used to imprison her as legally invalid.[5][39]

Zhang was hospitalized in Shanghai on 31 July 2021 after staging a long-running hunger strike, according to a message from her mother on Chinese social media. Her mother also wrote that Zhang was weighing less than 40 kilograms, half her body weight from before her detention.[40] On 2 August, after notification from and on request of authorities,[41] her parents and brother went to Shanghai to visit Zhang in prison but were only given permission to speak with her over the phone.[18] Zhang returned to prison on 11 August.[5] Subsequently, her health appeared to deteriorate further according to her mother, who told Radio Free Asia that her daughter, with whom she had spoken in a video call on 28 October, could not walk unassisted and was drooping her head.[6] In late 2021 Zhang's family made personal visits to her; her mother said that the condition of her daughter in late November was still the same as before, in spite of her having been admitted again to hospital at the end of October. The family said that the hospital had withheld the clinical report from them.[42]

In February 2022, Zhang's mother revealed that her daughter's health had improved and Zhang had halted her hunger strike. Zhang is now able to walk on her own and her stomach ache has ended due to her food intake.[43]

Reactions

United States

The United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement that "The United States strongly condemns the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) sham prosecution and conviction of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan on December 28".[44][45] On 8 November 2021, Department of State spokesman Ned Price said that the United States were "deeply concerned about the deteriorating health" of Zhang, that it had "serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of her detention and her mistreatment during it", and called for her "immediate and unconditional release".[8]

European Union

In December 2020, the European Union (EU) called for her to be released immediately.[46] They also called for the release of human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, and several others detained and convicted human rights defenders and reporters in China. An EU foreign policy spokesman, Peter Stano stated "according to credible sources, Ms Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated".[47][48] Nabila Massrali, spokeswoman for the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, called on 24 November for the unconditional release of Zhang and noted at the same time that previous calls by the European Union had not received a response.[49]

United Kingdom

The Embassy of the United Kingdom, Beijing said her case "raises serious concerns about media freedom in China" and that she was one of at least 47 journalists currently (December 2020) in detention in China for their coronavirus reporting; the statement called on the Chinese government for their release.[50]

United Nations

The United Nations human rights office said in a tweet on 28 December 2020 that it had "raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020", and that it would continue to call for her release.[51] On 19 November 2021, the human rights office urged for "Zhang's immediate and unconditional release, at the very least, on humanitarian grounds", and for her to be able to access "urgent life-saving" medical care.[9][52]

Non-governmental organizations

In a joint letter to Chinese leader Xi Jinping posted on 17 September 2021, a coalition of 45 non-governmental organizations, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), called for Zhang to be exonerated and for her "immediate" release due to her health condition. RSF's East Asia bureau head Cédric Alviani said that Zhang "should never have been arrested, let alone subjected to a harsh prison sentence".[53]

In November 2021, RSF announced Zhang as nominee of the organization's press freedom award for courage, in recognition of her journalistic work.[54] She was announced as the recipient a week later.[55]

China

As of November 2020, it was nearly impossible to find writings or videos by Zhang on the Chinese internet, although some comments by netizens on her had slipped past internet censorship.[56]

An indictment dated 15 September 2020, which became known on 13 November 2020, said that through accepting interviews from foreign media outlets such as Radio Free Asia and the Epoch Times, Zhang had "maliciously hype[d] up the situation in Wuhan, reaching a wide audience and causing a negative impact."[56]

On 20 November 2021, the diplomatic mission of China at the United Nations in Geneva responded with strong criticism to the statement by the UN human rights office from a day earlier. Mission spokesman Zhang Yuyin said that the office had turned "a blind eye to information provided by China through normal channels," had "irresponsible" and "erroneous" comments, and that the success of China in combating the COVID-19 pandemic was "not something that anyone can distort or write off".[57]

The Chinese Embassy in Britain said in a statement on the case of Zhang that the right of prison inmates to receive medical attention was "fully guaranteed", and that "anyone who breaches the law shall be sanctioned accordingly."[19]

Personal life

Zhang was born in Xianyang, Shaanxi, and graduated in finance at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics. She is a practicing Christian.[1][58][59][60]

References

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External links