Pandemic citizen journalist ‘taken to brother’s home’ in Shanghai

Zhang Zhan, who has been incommunicado following her release from jail, is still ‘very unfree,’ campaigners say.
By Lucie Lo for RFA Mandarin
2024.05.22
Pandemic citizen journalist ‘taken to brother’s home’ in Shanghai Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan in a screenshot from a May 21, 2024, video saying she was taken to her brother’s house following her release from Shanghai Women’s Prison on May 12, 2024.
(Free Zhang Zhan campaign group)

Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan has been reunited with her family following a four-year jail term for reporting from the front lines of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, but remains under ongoing restrictions, activists said.

“Hi everyone, it’s Zhang Zhan,” Zhang said in a video clip posted to social media on May 21.

“The police brought me back to my brother’s home in Shanghai at 5 a.m. on May 13,” she said, speaking hesitantly and appearing to read from a script.

“Thanks to everyone for their help and care,” she said. “I hope you’re all OK. I really don’t know what else to say.”

However, Jane Wang of the Free Zhang Zhan campaign said via X that Zhang still only has “limited freedom,” and that the group had been unable to confirm where Zhang was when the video was recorded.

“It is a relief to hear from Zhang Zhan again, but we remain concerned about her safety and well-being,” Wang said. “Like other former political prisoners, she is subject to intrusive government surveillance and harassment. She is at high risk of being ‘disappeared’ or arrested again.”

ENG_CHN_ZHANG ZHAN_05222024.2.jpg
A pro-democracy activist holds placards with a picture of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan outside the Chinese central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong on Dec. 28, 2020. (Kin Cheung/AP)

Wang told RFA Mandarin in a later interview that Zhang had described her situation as “very unfree” in a WeChat message to a friend.

According to Wang, that likely means that Zhang is under constant guard and surveillance.

“[It likely means that she is] followed whenever she goes out anywhere, and is under constant guard and surveillance, and that her family has been threatened, and could get a visit [from police] or a summons at any time,” Wang said.

“We don’t know if she is able to leave Shanghai, for example,” she said. 

An overseas-based friend of Zhang’s who declined to be named for fear of reprisals said he hasn’t been in touch with her because “communications back home can’t be confidential.”

Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders called again for Zhang’s “full and unconditional release.”

“Although Chinese journalist #ZhangZhan was able to share a video today confirming her release from prison after four years, we’re worried about her situation under strict surveillance,” the group said via X. “Our call for her full & unconditional release remains urgent.”

Zhang’s video statement came after the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” at reports that she was incommunicado following her release from Shanghai Women’s Prison on May 13.

“The United States has repeatedly expressed our serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of her detention and authorities’ mistreatment of her,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.

“We reiterate our call for [China] to respect the human rights of Ms. Zhang, including by immediately ending the restrictive measures that she and all journalists in [China] face, which include surveillance, censorship, harassment, and intimidation,” Miller said. 

Zhang, 39, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment by Shanghai’s Pudong District People’s Court on Dec. 28, 2020, and was hospitalized last year for digestive diseases linked to malnutrition following several months of hunger strikes.

Zhang had pleaded not guilty. A guilty plea is typically a prerequisite for more lenient treatment in China’s judicial system.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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