In February 2020, Zhang Zhan, a 36-year old lawyer turned citizen journalist, travelled to Wuhan to report on the early days of the pandemic. With much of the news in China heavily censored, Zhan’s first-hand reports, along with those of other citizen journalists, offered an insight into life under lockdown to a Chinese public crying out for unfiltered news. Three months later, on May 14th, the day after publishing a video critical of the government’s Covid response, Zhan went missing.
Disappearances are not uncommon in China. Under the Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) system, a person can be detained for up to six months without access to a lawyer. The requirement that families be informed is routinely ignored. However, Zhan’s family was notified within two days of her detention, most likely because her hunger strike began almost straight away. In December that year, accused of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’, a term often used to target and silence citizen journalists, Zhan was convicted and sentenced to four years in jail.
According to Jane Wang, a UK-based activist with Humanitarian China who is campaigning for Zhan’s release, Zhan first got involved in social justice movements several years ago. “She basically got herself into trouble for speaking up for social justice. For helping people who desperately needed legal advice to voice their grievances against the government. Her support for them, along with her support for the Hong Kong protesters, put a target on her back.”
In 2019, Zhan was detained twice and mistreated while in custody. “She was put in solitary confinement while her hands and feet were chained, and given only basic food so she survived. But that’s all, there were no toilet breaks, no bathing, nothing. She was left to lie in her own urine and faeces. I know some people whose personality changed after going through this kind of ordeal in prison. They call this kind of torture a ‘death bed’. People would rather die than be left in that situation.”
After her release, Zhan was followed everywhere. “She would have been severely warned every time, but she didn’t give up, she kept going. Despite the risks, she went to Wuhan,” says Wang. “As a citizen journalist, her voice was incredibly important because she provided a unique angle on what happened in Wuhan. That’s definitely what the Chinese government did not want everyone to see. She questioned the real death toll, why the virus kept spreading and why the citizens of Wuhan were not told the truth for several weeks.”
Cédric Alviani, east Asia Bureau Head for Reporters without Borders (RSF), explained that like everyone else, the Chinese public were desperate for information about Covid. For a couple of weeks, they were more afraid of the pandemic than of the consequences of speaking out. “There was an outbreak of expression online,” he says. It lasted only a short time before the government renewed the crackdown on those publishing uncensored information. Some people received a warning while others were detained. It is impossible to know exact numbers, but according to his count, at least ten journalists were arrested.
Alviani believes the Chinese authorities want to make an example of Zhan to deter others from following in her footsteps. “They should have never prevented Zhang Zhan from reporting. She was just there, checking what was happening, with people who could see it too, and sharing it with the public. This is what president Xi Jinping and what the current regime in China does not want. Their fear is that every citizen would become a journalist and would share what they see.”
“Zhang Zhan has not had a single normal meal since she was arrested,” says Wang.
Her health has deteriorated significantly. When her family last talked to her over a month ago, Zhan, who is 177 centimetres tall, weighed less than 40 kilograms. She was unable to walk and had lost the ability to lift her head. After the call, her brother shared on Twitter that she might not survive through the winter. “I think she may not live long,” he wrote.
The RSF’s report on press freedom in China – ‘The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China‘ – highlights ten other cases of detained journalists whose health is of concern. Names include Uyghur journalist Ilham Tohti and Swedish publisher Gui Minhai. In 2017, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died after his terminal cancer diagnosis went untreated. In 2019, activist Wang Meiyu died in police custody after being detained for holding a placard calling for Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang’s resignation and for universal suffrage. Both the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders point to China as the world’s largest captor of journalists in 2021.
It seems unlikely that Zhang Zhan will be released, despite calls from the United Nations and human rights groups. “The government wants the punishment to be chilling for other people,” says Alviani. “This could happen to any Chinese citizen. Any person that posts a video online could be punished the same way.”
Wang, who admires Zhan’s determination, courage and selflessness, says Zhan is under no illusions about the prospects of her release. “She knows what happened to those before her,” she says. “She had all the qualifications for leading a comfortable life in Shanghai. But she gave it all up. She left her job to pursue democracy and human rights.”
“Before her trial, she said: ‘Don’t be concerned about me, instead focus on the people in more urgent situations.’ I think I know what she meant by that. She knew she would be arrested if she didn’t leave Wuhan in time. She ignored the warning signs and she wanted to keep going. Even from prison, she continues her battle. Right till the end, she wants us not to fight for her, but fight with her.”
Cédric Alviani thinks we should see Zhang Zhan not as a victim of the Chinese regime, but as a hero for press freedom. “She knew what the risks were and decided to do it anyway. So I would prefer to see her as a hero, rather than a victim. A victim doesn’t have a choice, but Zhang Zhan did. She decided to go to Wuhan, she used her own name and she wasn’t hiding. Zhang Zhan – and all other arrested journalists – have to be celebrated as heroes. That’s the only way to respect the sacrifices they have made.”