Loading Now
Zhang Zhan, Citizen Journalist Who Reported on COVID Outbreak, Missing After Scheduled Release From Prison
Zhang Zhan, Citizen Journalist Who Reported on COVID Outbreak, Missing After Scheduled Release From Prison

Zhang Zhan, Citizen Journalist Who Reported on COVID Outbreak, Missing After Scheduled Release From Prison

There are mounting concerns over the well-being and whereabouts of Zhang Zhan, the former lawyer-turned-citizen-journalist whose reporting from Wuhan in early 2020 was essential to lifting the lid on the emerging COVID pandemic. After being arrested in May of 2020, Zhang served four years in prison on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” She was scheduled to be released from prison on Monday, but there has been no news of her release, health status, or current whereabouts, sparking fears that she has been subjected to what legal scholar Jerome Cohen calls “non-release release.”

During her imprisonment, Zhang contested the legal validity of her arrest and sentencing, confided to her lawyer that she was tortured, and carried out periodic hunger strikes, which contributed to a marked decline in her health. She became severely underweight, was hospitalized at one point, and was reportedly restrained and forcibly fed—treatment that violates the U.N. Convention against Torture, to which China is a signatory.

The Guardian’s Amy Hawkins detailed widespread concern about Zhang Zhan’s health and whereabouts, noting that it is unclear whether Zhang has been released from prison or remains under some form of residential surveillance:

Aleksandra Bielakowska, an advocacy officer for Reporters Without Borders in Taiwan, said Zhang’s family had had limited contact with activists in recent weeks and that the organisation had received “no information” about Zhang since Monday. “We don’t know if they have been threatened, if they are under surveillance or if they’ve been taken away,” she said.

There are concerns that Zhang may have been released into limited freedom, with restrictions on her movement and communications. One of her former lawyers told the Guardian that Zhang might have been “taken away for vacation”, a euphemism for when the police in China force a person deemed troublesome to go on a chaperoned trip to keep them under surveillance. “Everyone is paying attention and trying to find out what’s going on, but there’s no news,” the lawyer said.

Maya Wang, the associate director in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said: “At the moment we have not had confirmation about Zhang Zhan’s release, which is especially concerning given her very poor health in prison.” 

[…] Wang Wenbin, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, reportedly declined to comment about Zhang’s case on Monday.

Bielakowska said: “The fact that there is silence is a message itself.” [Source]

Read more on “being traveled” from CDT, and on the “involuntary passive” grammatical construction it exemplifies in our recent CDT Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition ebook.

At The Associated Press, Huizhong Wu reported on what appears to be intense official pressure on Zhang’s family, friends, and supporters to stay silent. The article quoted some of Zhang’s supporters, including her former lawyer Ren Quanniu, who himself was targeted for retaliation in 2021 when he was threatened with disbarment and prevented from opening a legal services company:

Ren Quanniu, a former lawyer who previously represented Zhang, said he could not reach her father and expressed concern that Zhang would be released only to be put under another form of control by police.

Monday was the last day of her four-year sentence, confirmed Ren and Jane Wang, another overseas activist who launched the Free Zhang Zhan campaign in the U.K.

[…] Zhang’s family has faced police pressure during her stay in prison, and her parents have declined interview requests from media. Her family at times could only speak to their daughter by phone at the prison.

Shen Yanqiu, who had planned to go with Zhang’s family to receive her at the prison, declined to speak to The Associated Press, saying she had been “invited to drink tea,” a euphemism for a police interrogation.

[…] The coronavirus remains a sensitive topic in China. In the first week of May, a Chinese scientist who was the first to publish a sequence of the COVID-19 virus staged a protest after authorities barred him from his lab, after years of demotions and setbacks. [Source]

For the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Libby Hogan described fears among Zhang’s supporters that she may not regain her freedom, despite her scheduled release from prison:

“We have received warning signals that some activists and lawyers, based in China, have been threatened in recent weeks by Chinese authorities not to raise Zhang Zhan’s case internationally,” Reporters Without Borders advocacy officer Aleksandra Bielakowska said.

[…] Jane Wang, a UK-based advocate who has campaigned for Ms Zhang’s release, fears that she may be sent to an undisclosed location.

“I understand that her parents and brother have been under enormous pressure and warned severely not to give media interviews.”

She said she was aware of at least one Shanghai-based activist who was summoned by the police for discussing Ms Zhang’s release plans.

[…] Ms Wang said she was worried Ms Zhang would become a prisoner in her own home.

“If she is placed under house arrest she will have little chance of getting urgently-needed, long-overdue medical treatment,” she added. [Source]

Vivian Wang of The New York Times wrote that it is not uncommon for journalists released from imprisonment in China to be kept under various forms of surveillance by the authorities:

[I]n a sign of how eager the Chinese government remains to suppress public discussion of the [COVID] outbreak, it was unclear on Monday evening whether Ms. Zhang, 40, had actually been set free. The lawyer who represented Ms. Zhang during her trial, Zhang Keke (the two are not related), said he could not reach her mother all day. Reached by phone, officials at the Shanghai prison administration declined to comment.

“Even though she will have served her sentence, there are doubts regarding the Chinese regime’s willingness to give her back her freedom,” Reporters Without Borders, the international media watchdog group, said in a statement several days before her expected release. The group, which gave Ms. Zhang a press freedom award in 2021, noted that journalists released from imprisonment in China are often kept under surveillance. [Source]

Along with Zhang Zhan, a number of others who reported on COVID from Wuhan were also detained, arrested, and/or imprisoned. Li Zehua went missing for several months in 2020 after live-streaming an explanation of his decision to report from Wuhan to security forces waiting outside his apartment to arrest him; he reappeared in late April of that year. Citizen journalist Chen Qiushi also went missing in early 2020, but resurfaced in September of 2021, saying that he was safe but had suffered from depression. Fang Bin, who disappeared in mid-February 2020 after documenting bodies stacked in a van outside of a Wuhan hospital, was jailed for three years and reportedly released last year.

China remains the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists and writers, with 107 people currently imprisoned—many on charges of “picking quarrels”—for publishing content deemed illegal or harmful by Chinese authorities. Reporters Without Borders (RSF’s) 2023 World Press Freedom Index ranks China second to last in terms of journalistic freedoms, just one spot above North Korea.