Frail and wheelchair-bound from the prolonged hunger strike, 37-year-old former lawyer Zhang Zhan issued a mostly silent rebuke to the Chinese legal system, before being jailed for publishing stories about the pandemic that China does not want to be told.
Zhang began reporting from Wuhan in February, questioning the city closure, access to virus testing and the hospital’s capacity. His videos also captured the aggression of the Chinese authorities when they confronted a woman filming on her smartphone.
Their reports provided rare and unadorned glimpses of the virus’s epicenter during the first months of the outbreak, in a country where sharing information unauthorized by authorities is dangerous activity.
The coronavirus would soon seep around the world and China would be blamed for not acting early enough.
Beijing then began work sculpting a more orderly narrative, praising China’s communist leadership for controlling an unprecedented public health crisis.
Like the three other citizen journalists who also traveled to Wuhan during the early stages of the outbreak, Zhang’s reports threatened to expose loopholes in that story.
In one of his videos, he mentioned being under strict surveillance. Her videos and social media posts, many on Twitter and YouTube, platforms blocked in China, came to an abrupt end when authorities detained her in May.
Then on Monday, after seven months in detention, she was jailed by a Shanghai court for four years for “causing fights and causing trouble.”
– “Rebellious soul” –
Shortly before his arrest, he had been trying to campaign on behalf of the grieving relatives of the virus victims, who were seeking compensation, a sensitive issue for the Chinese authorities.
“Zhang Zhan wanted to help the common people of Wuhan. I wanted to understand their sufferings and let the whole world know about it, ”said his lawyer Zhang Keke, also from Wuhan.
The authorities repeatedly urged him to drop his case and not accept interviews with foreign media.
Zhang was the first of the citizen journalists to face legal proceedings for their activities, which prosecutors considered “fabricating lies and spreading false information.”
All were eventually arrested.
“I warned her not to go to Wuhan when everyone else was trying to leave,” said her friend and fellow lawyer Li Dawei.
“She is a staunch Christian and she said it was God’s will; she had to do this and tell everyone the truth.”
The others, Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi, and Li Zehua, have now completely stopped talking. Chen and Li have reportedly returned home, while Fang’s whereabouts are unknown.
In a short documentary filmed before her arrest and released after her sentencing, Zhang said that an online post by a Wuhan resident motivated her to travel there in search of the truth about the outbreak.
“He said he felt like he was left there to die, I was very moved by what he wrote,” he told the anonymous filmmaker, who released the film on the China Change website.
“Maybe I have a rebellious soul.”
– “The tragedy of Wuhan” –
Zhang spoke little during the trial, an act of protest, his lawyers said, against China’s legal process and restrictions on freedom of expression.
Defense attorney Zhang Keke said his client even refused to respond to a judge who asked him to confirm his identity in court.
The lawyer told AFP: “When he asked why, she replied: ‘If you think I’m making up lies, then when I answer your questions, doesn’t that count as making up lies too?'”
His mother sobbed loudly in court when the sentence was read, but Zhang was unfazed, the lawyers said.
Foreign journalists and diplomats were not allowed in to observe the proceedings, which were completed in three hours.
But she maintains her innocence and is likely to appeal if given the opportunity, her lawyers said.
He has also been on a hunger strike in protest, which has devastated his health since his arrest.
Zhang Keke said she was force-fed through a nasal tube and held on her hands and feet for long periods. As a result, he suffers from chronic headaches, fatigue and stomach pain, he added.
“Perhaps his determination to resist will continue to the end,” he said.
Zhang’s remarks about everyday life in Wuhan – companies struggling to recover, grieving family members, clashes with the police – didn’t have much of an impact online, but they caught the attention of Chinese authorities.
His videos also revealed broader discontent with China’s authoritarian ruling system.
“The main form of governing the city is based on threats and intimidation,” he said in a YouTube video filmed in May.
“This is the tragedy of China, of Wuhan.”