A Chinese citizen journalist who was jailed for exposing the failures of the government’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is gravely ill from a hunger strike, according to messages from her family shared by her former lawyer and a friend.
Journalist Zhang Zhan, 37, had traveled to Wuhan from her home in Shanghai and spent the early days of the outbreak documenting the city’s strict lockdown and the severe impact it was having on the means to subsistence and freedoms of the inhabitants.
Ms. Zhang’s reports challenged the government’s efforts to portray her response as competent and benevolent. She was convicted last year of “choosing bickering and causing trouble,” a vague charge often used to target dissent, and sentenced to four years in prison after a three-hour closed trial.
Ms. Zhang went on a hunger strike after her arrest in May of last year. Her lawyers had previously said authorities used a feeding tube to feed her and immobilized her hands. Her mother, Shao Wenxia, described it as a “partial hunger strike,” with Ms. Zhang eating fruits and cookies but no meat, rice, or vegetables.
The reporter appeared at her trial in December in a wheelchair, when one of her lawyers said she had already lost a lot of weight and her appearance had changed significantly in just a few weeks.
Ms. Zhang, who is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed around 165 pounds before her arrest, now weighs less than 90 pounds, according to a message Ms. Shao sent to her former attorney, Zhang Keke. He shared the post with the New York Times.
Ms. Zhang’s mother has not been able to see her in person since her arrest because the authorities refused to let her visit him, Mr. Zhang said. Ms Shao said in the message that her daughter was hospitalized on July 31 and her family was allowed to speak to her by phone on August 2. She returned to prison on August 11.
“She always insisted that she was not guilty and that she would not eat regularly,” Ms. Shao wrote. Ms. Zhang suffered from a gastric ulcer and was so weak that she needed help standing up, her mother said in another message to Mr. Zhang. Ms. Shao could not be reached for comment.
An official from the Shanghai Prison Administration Office, reached by phone on Tuesday, confirmed that Ms. Zhang had returned to Shanghai Women’s Prison after receiving medical treatment, but declined to answer further questions about her condition. state.
So far, Ms. Zhang has not responded to calls from her family to resume normal eating.
“Our first hope is that she can end her hunger strike,” said Peng Yonghe, a Chinese lawyer and friend of Ms. Zhang. “Second, we hope it can be released as soon as possible.”
Mr. Peng warned that Ms. Zhang’s condition was unlikely to lead to early release. Although the Chinese system allows medical parole, conditions resulting from a hunger strike would not be eligible, he said.
Human rights activists have raised concerns that if Ms. Zhang’s health does not improve, she could share the fate of other Chinese dissidents who have died in detention.
“She could actually die in prison,” said Wang Jianhong, who heads the US-based humanitarian rights group. “It is not without merit because we have seen so many previous examples.”
Cao Shunli, who had demanded that an official human rights report submitted by China to the United Nations include the voices of citizens, died of a lung infection in 2014. Her family said she was sick. was denied timely medical treatment. Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in prison, died of liver cancer while under surveillance in a hospital in 2017.
Ms. Zhang refused to appeal her conviction, telling her lawyers that she refused to recognize the validity of the legal process used to imprison her.
She was the first citizen journalist to stand trial for challenging the official account of China’s response to the pandemic. Others, including Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua, were detained and were reportedly released later, although Mr. Chen appears to be under surveillance. The fate of another, Fang Bin, remains uncertain.
Media in China is strictly controlled by the government, and social media platforms like Weibo censor sensitive topics. But at the start of the pandemic, when authorities were distracted by controlling the outbreak, some citizen journalists, working independently, trimmed the official narrative with a heroic response.
In Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus first appeared, Ms. Zhang posted videos that showed how the epidemic overwhelmed a hospital and crematorium. She showed how the city’s severe lockdown forced businesses to close and pushed up the prices of vegetables.
After a city official said residents should learn how to properly express their gratitude to the government, she interviewed people on the streets to see if they felt grateful.
“We are adults,” she says. “We don’t need to be taught.”
In what turned out to be her last video before her detention, she criticized what she saw as an excessively harsh way to enforce the Wuhan lockdown.
“The way the government is running this city has been nothing but intimidation and threats,” she said. “This is truly the tragedy of this country.”