Citizen Journalist Imprisoned: COVID, Human Rights, And China’s Internal Secrecy

The Chinese government has found citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, 37, guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for her coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan last year. Zhang’s sentence is four years imprisonment.

Ms. Zhang, who travelled to Wuhan in February, spent three months in the city after hearing of its citizens’ intense isolation. While there, she posted a total of 122 YouTube videos highlighting flaws in how Wuhan handled the outbreak. Her indictment sheet lists various misinformation charges, including sending “false information through text, video and other media through [platforms such as] WeChat, Twitter and YouTube,” as well as accusations that she accepted interviews with foreign media, and has been “maliciously spreading” misinformation about the virus and China’s response.

Two of Ms. Zhang’s lawyers, Ren Quanniu and Zhang Deke, have expressed considerable concern for her mental and physical wellbeing. Ms. Zhang has been on hunger strike since her detainment in early May, and claimed during a visit in December that she was being force-fed through a tube. Mr. Ren reported that his client is “restrained 24 hours a day, she needs assistance going to the bathroom, and she tosses and turns in her sleep. She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment.” Ms. Zhang “looked devastated,” Ren said, as her sentence was handed down.

Chinese rights groups are alarmed by the heavy sentence. Leo Lan, a research and advocacy consultant with the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said that “the Chinese government is very determined to silence her and intimidate other citizens who tried to expose what happened in Wuhan” and that he is “concerned about the fate of other detained citizens” who reported on the coronavirus. Other citizen journalists detained for reporting events in Wuhan include Li Zehua, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, who also went missing early last year. Li has since reappeared, claiming to have been forcibly quarantined, while Chen is reported to be under government supervision, but allowed to stay with family. At the time of writing, Fang’s whereabouts remain unknown.

These disappearances, and Ms. Zhang’s imprisonment, undercut a statement by China’s Foreign Ministry on September 23rd, in which spokesman Wang Wenbin declared that “China’s epidemic response has been open and transparent every step of the way.” Clearly, this has not been the case. Rather, the arrests are simply the latest in a string of official attempts to restrict the transmission of information about the virus outbreak.

Officials in Wuhan first reprimanded eight doctors who expressed concern over the virus in December 2019. This was followed by both the local and national government remaining silent as the virus swept the city the following month. More recently, Chinese officials have begun suggesting that the virus in fact originated outside of China’s borders. Such suppression of information, compounded with a seemingly massive underestimation of official Chinese death toll, suggest that the country is playing a long-established game of “what happens in China, stays in China.”

China currently has no free media, and routinely clamps down on any activists who appear to be undermining the government. Ms. Zhang’s first video, entitled “my claim for the right of free speech,” was clearly courting disapproval; her charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is the standard charge levied on apparent dissenters. Arresting individuals on such flimsy charges is a clear violation of international human rights, as is their subsequent treatment by authorities. It is unlikely that Zhang will be the last person to suffer in this manner.

China must be coaxed out of its internal secrecy. Increasing the flexibility of the Chinese people’s rights to free speech and a free press would be a good place to start. If the government can swallow that pill and increase those two freedoms, it will not only pave the way for further growth, but also allow the world a greater insight into China as a nation.

Many in the West still perceive China as an enigma to be feared on the international stage. Imprisoning citizens for truly impressive acts of investigative journalism is, as Ms. Zhang herself noted, the act of a backwards nation. “Why can’t I show the truth?” Zhang said. “I won’t stop what I’m doing because this country can’t go backwards.” Perhaps China would garner more international goodwill and have an easier time working with other nations if its government accepted and abided by basic human rights.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of an interconnected world. In this international climate, the current approach by the world’s most populous country is simply unsustainable.

Henry Whitelaw