Authorities in Shanghai are moving ahead with the prosecution of a citizen journalist who reported on the emerging coronavirus epidemic in the central Chinese city of Wuhan earlier this year.
Zhang Zhan, who lives in Shanghai but who traveled to Wuhan in early February, was taken away from Wuhan's Caiguang Hotel near Hankou railway station on the night of May 14.
She was held by police near her home in Shanghai's Pudong district on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Zhang was then formally arrested on that charge on June 19 on the orders of the Pudong state prosecutor, and is currently being held in the Pudong Detention Center.
She recently dismissed her defense attorney, Ren Quanniu, who had been hired by her mother, her mother told RFA in a recent interview.
Zhang is currently being force-fed in detention after she started a hunger strike to protest against her treatment.
"I don’t know what to do now," her mother told RFA. "Only Ren can take this case, although he's from out of town and it's a long way for him to come."
"This will affect Zhang Zhan's whole life," she said. "I am worried that things could get serious if this goes on for a long time."
However, she declined to comment on Zhang's hunger strike.
Zhang's father declined to comment when contacted by RFA.
"I can't talk right now: I am driving and I am on the expressway," he said.
Pressured by police
Ren said the family is currently under pressure from state security police in Shanghai.
"Zhang Zhan's mother didn't want to end my instruction, but ... the state security police were putting pressure on her, so it was hard for her to decide," he said.
He said he had been told "don't come any more," by state prosecutor Zhao Xing of the Shanghai municipal procuratorate, who said the decision to fire Ren had come from Zhang's family.
Zhao told him that another lawyer had been hired by the authorities to replace him.
"I will continue to act as [an informal] representative," Ren told RFA.
A friend of the Zhang family surnamed Wang said Shanghai police had initially tried to have Zhang Zhan committed to a psychiatric hospital, but the family refused to allow this, so the plan was dropped in favor of pressing criminal charges.
Solidarity with Hong Kong
Zhang, 40, was detained by police in Shanghai in September 2019 for holding up an umbrella in solidarity with the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement on the streets of Shanghai, and demanding an end to Communist Party rule.
She was released after 65 days in detention, during which time she went on hunger strike twice.
Zhang moved to Shanghai from the northern province of Shaanxi in 2010, and formerly worked as a lawyer before official retaliation took away her license to practice.
In Zhang's last YouTube video posted on May 13, she had reported on the impact of a huge fall in passenger numbers on the livelihoods of Wuhan's taxi drivers, as well as loss of employment in the wake of the lockdown among the city's residents.
She also spoke out against the intimidation of local people by the urban management police, or chengguan, and about a sense of despair at life in China.
The Chinese government has targeted thousands of people for speaking out about the coronavirus epidemic in the country since it began in late December in the central city of Wuhan.
Between Jan. 1 and March 26, nearly 900 internet users were penalized by police for their online speech or info-sharing about the coronavirus epidemic, across almost every province, region, and municipality in China.
Charges used to question, detain, and arrest people included "rumor-mongering," "fabricating false information," “sowing panic,” “disturbing public order,” and "breach of privacy."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.