The first known person to be prosecuted for documenting China’s coronavirus crisis is critically ill in a Shanghai prison and could die if she doesn’t receive treatment, her family and friends say – a revelation that has brought renewed attention to the attempts of China to condone its early treatment of the pandemic.
On Monday, the US State Department called on the Chinese government to immediately release the woman, Zhang Zhan. Human Rights Watch has requested the same.
“We have repeatedly expressed our grave concern about the arbitrary nature of her detention and her ill-treatment during that detention,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
China has worked aggressively to silence critics of its early response to the coronavirus, as it slowed down the spread of the virus and punished whistleblowers. It has promoted a triumphant, nationalistic narrative of Chinese superiority, with an emphasis on later success in containing new cases.
Ms. Zhang, 38, was one of several self-proclaimed citizen journalists who traveled to the city of Wuhan early last year, where the coronavirus first emerged. Because the chaos of the initial outbreak, followed by strict government controls on information, made it difficult for outsiders to know what was happening in Wuhan, those citizen journalists posted videos and blog posts on social media to share what they saw.
Ms. Zhang visited a hospital, where she filmed the beds in the corridor and a crematorium. She interviewed residents on the street about their livelihood concerns and asked what they thought of the government’s response.
In May 2020, after several months of shipments, she disappeared. Her family was later told that she had been arrested and charged with “provoking a fight and causing trouble,” a collective term the Chinese authorities use to silence critics. In December, she was sentenced to four years in prison.
Not long after her arrest, Ms. Zhang is on hunger strike, according to her lawyers. One of her lawyers, Zhang Keke, said last year that her hands were tied during one of his visits; she told him it was to keep her from pulling out the tubes for force-feeding.
According to friends and human rights activists, Ms Zhang has continued to refuse most food after her trial. She was hospitalized briefly over the summer. Her health continued to deteriorate: Mrs. Zhang, who is six feet tall and once weighed about 165 pounds, appeared to weigh less than 90 pounds in October, according to a Twitter post late last month by her brother, Zhang Ju.
“I think she probably won’t have long to live,” he wrote, adding in a separate message that his mother had recently spoken to Ms. Zhang.
Mr. Zhang was not immediately available for comment, but friends of Ms. Zhang confirmed that the Twitter account belonged to him.
Mr Zhang shared a photo of his sister around age 6 or 7, dancing on a bed at home. “I have never met anyone purer than she is,” he said, “nor have I met anyone more determined.”