Fears grow over health of jailed Chinese activist who covered pandemic from Wuhan

The US State Department calls for the release of Zhang Zhan, who is close to death after refusing food.
By Man Hoi Yan
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Fears grow over health of jailed Chinese activist who covered pandemic from Wuhan Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan is shown in a screenshot taken from a video interview.

Fears that jailed citizen journalist Zhang Zhan may not survive continued incarceration have prompted international calls for her release in recent days, while an international press freedom group has listed her for an award.

"We have repeatedly expressed our serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of her detention and her mistreatment during it," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on Nov. 8.

"We reiterate our call to the PRC for her immediate and unconditional release," Price told a regular news briefing in Washington.

Prominent human rights lawyer Xie Yang, whose license to practice law was revoked by Chinese officials after he reported being tortured in detention, welcomed Price's comments.

Xie told RFA on Tuesday that he had planned to travel to Shanghai to meet with Zhang Zhan's mother, but had been warned against doing so by his local police.

When he ignored their warning and traveled to his local airport, Changsha Huanghua, on Nov. 6, he found that his COVID-19 tracking app status, also known as a "health code," had turned red, and he was denied permission to board the flight to Shanghai.

Xie said he hadn't visited a high-risk area in the past 14 days, and that his health code had been green before he left for the airport, suggesting the authorities were using the app to control people's movements for political purposes.

"We need to use diplomatic channels now, to bring international scrutiny to bear on the Chinese government," Xie told RFA. "The rights enshrined in law need to be guaranteed."

"We call on organizations tasked with protecting human rights around the world, on human rights organizations at the United Nations, to start speaking out independently [in support of Zhang's release]," he said.

Rights activist Wang Jianhong, who has founded the Zhang Zhan Concern Group, said Zhang is a rare kind of hero.

"[She] dared to speak the truth ... and stand up for the public interest, regardless of personal cost," Wang told RFA. "Her mother saw  her and told us that she had difficulty walking and can't even lift her head."

"She also told friends that Zhang's skin was looking yellow and shiny on her forehead ... she says she'll be in real danger if she's not allowed parole to seek medical treatment," Wang said.

Call for immediate release

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for Zhang's immediate release on Nov. 3, then announced a day later that it had shortlisted her for its Press Freedom Award, for journalists who make "a notable contribution to the defense or promotion of freedom of the media around the world."

"RSF urges for the immediate release of Chinese Covid-19 journalist Zhang Zhan, whose health is rapidly deteriorating due to a partial hunger strike and who faces impending death if maintained in detention," the group said in a statement.

“We call on the international community to apply pressure to the Chinese regime and secure Zhang Zhan’s immediate release before it is too late,” RSF East Asia bureau chief Cédric Alviani said. "She was only performing her duty as a reporter and should never have been detained, not to mention receive a four-year prison sentence."

Zhang, 38, was sentenced to four years' imprisonment by Shanghai's Pudong District People's Court on Dec. 28, 2020, and has been eating very little food, rather than refusing anything, to avoid being force-fed by tube.

Her family say she can't walk or hold her head up unassisted, and currently weighs less than 40 kilograms, despite being 1.78 meters tall.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Chinese government to release Zhang Zhan immediately and unconditionally, saying she had been "wrongfully imprisoned."

“The Chinese government needs to be held to account for allowing yet another peaceful critic to fall gravely ill while unjustly imprisoned,” HRW senior China researcher Yaqiu Wang said in a Nov. 3 statement. "Governments should call for Zhang Zhan’s urgent release to prevent an already terrible situation from becoming a tragic one."

It called on foreign diplomats in China to request visits with Zhang, who is being held at the Shanghai Women’s Prison.

"If such requests are denied or receive no response, they should go to the prison and personally request access to Zhang and meet with prison officials to express concerns about her case," the group said.

One of a group of citizen journalists detained, jailed, or "disappeared" after they went to the central city of Wuhan to cover the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zhang was sent for medical treatment at the end of July for malnutrition following several months of hunger strike in a Shanghai prison.

Zhang pleaded not guilty at her trial, where she appeared in court in a wheelchair. A guilty plea is typically a prerequisite for more lenient treatment in China's judicial system under the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

China is the world's largest jailer of journalists, with 122 currently behind bars, according to RSF. The country ranked 177th out of 180 in the 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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