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A citizen journalist who shined a light on the pandemic in Wuhan may die in prison

Nov 11, 2021
Originally published on November 16, 2021 7:15 am

BEIJING — A lawyer-turned-citizen-journalist in China who posted videos on social media from Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic is on the verge of dying in prison after staging a months-long hunger strike, according to her family and her lawyer.

Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer and blogger, was arrested in May 2020 and sentenced to four years prison that December for filming videos from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus was first discovered in humans.

"She's so stubborn, [she will not eat] and she may not survive for much longer," Zhang Ju, her brother, recently wrote on Twitter after their mother was able to visit the prison Zhang Zhan is being held in and talk her by video.

"If she does not make it past the coming winter, I hope the world will remember her as she once was," he added.

He wrote that Zhang — who stands about 5-foot-10 — weighs less than 88 pounds, after beginning an intermittent hunger strike since she was detained last year.

"Zhang believes she is fundamentally innocent, that her detention, arrest and conviction were wrong, and that the only way she can protest is to refuse to eat," says Zhang Keke, one of her lawyers. (The two are not related despite having the same surname.)

The attorney says authorities have refused him access to his client, but he hopes that she can be persuaded to eat, or be set free on medical parole. Zhang Zhan's mother was able to talk to her daughter by video link in late October, but her brother has not been able to talk to her because authorities refuse to acknowledge they are related, according to her lawyer.

Zhang Zhan was originally trained as a lawyer, and became more involved in human rights and political activism after 2013, the year she converted to Christianity, according to her brother.

She traveled to Wuhan in early 2020, soon after initial reports about a mysterious new virus began circulating domestically. Her videos from that trip – ultimately more than 120 in total – documented a darker side of the government's lockdown and bungled initial efforts to deal with the outbreak. She was soon detained for "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," a broad criminal charge.

"The entire prosecution is a sham. It's a catch-all crime that the government often uses against critics of the government," said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The U.S. government has intensified calls for China's Communist Party to release Zhang Zhan. This week, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. was concerned about Zhang's well-being.

"We reiterate our call to the PRC for her immediate and unconditional release," he said, "and for Beijing to respect a free press and the right of people to express themselves freely."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to the story of a lawyer turned citizen journalist in China. She posted videos on social media from Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic, and she may be on the verge of dying in prison. Rights groups say she is not well, and the U.S. government has intensified calls for the Communist Party to release her. NPR's John Ruwitch has her story.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: In one of Zhang Zhan's early reports, you can see her arguing with guards at a checkpoint and getting pushed around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHANG ZHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: And in this one, she visits a police station to ask about the investigation into the case of Li Wenliang, the eye doctor who blew the whistle on the pandemic and was punished for it before dying of the disease. Zhang was detained in May 2020 and sentenced to four years in prison for her unsanctioned reports. Last month, Zhang's mother went to the prison where she's being held. Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, says her mother was able to talk with her through a video link.

YAQIU WANG: The visit lasted only like five minutes, and she later told friends that, you know, her daughter was very weak. And she couldn't hold her head up for lack of - stress.

RUWITCH: Zhang has been on a hunger strike. One of her lawyers, Zhang Keke, says she's been refusing to eat or eating very little since she was first detained.

ZHANG KEKE: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: He says Zhang believes she's fundamentally innocent, that her detention, arrest and conviction were wrong and that the only way she can protest is to refuse to eat.

K ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: The lawyer says she may not have even eaten one full meal in the past year and a half.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

Z ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: Zhang's videos from Wuhan showed a site of the outbreak that the ruling Communist Party has tried to suppress - a darker side of the government's heavy-handed lockdown and bungled initial efforts to deal with the outbreak. The party saw her as a risk, according to Wang from Human Rights Watch, and it jailed her for the crime of picking quarrels and provoking trouble.

WANG: The entire prosecution is a sham. It's a catch-all crimes that the government often uses against critics of the government.

RUWITCH: Zhang, the lawyer, says what's more serious than the conviction is that her life is now threatened.

K ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: He hasn't been able to meet her recently, but he says he hopes that she can be persuaded to eat or that she'll be set free on medical parole. This week State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. was concerned about Zhang, and he urged China to release her. President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are slated to hold a virtual summit soon. Perhaps her case will come up. Meanwhile, her brother tweeted recently that Zhang, who stands about 5'10", weighs less than 88 pounds now. She's so stubborn, he said, that she may not survive the coming winter. John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.