A Chinese citizen journalist who was jailed for exposing the flaws in the government’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is seriously ill from a hunger strike, according to messages from her family shared by her former lawyer and a friend.
The journalist, Zhang Zhan, 37, had traveled to Wuhan from her home in Shanghai and spent the first days of the outbreak documenting the strict blockade of the city and the severe impact it had on the livelihoods and freedoms of residents. .
Ms. Zhang’s reports challenged the government’s efforts to present its response as competent and supportive. She was convicted last year of “sparking fights and causing trouble,” a vague charge often used to target dissent, and was sentenced to four years in prison after a three-hour closed-door trial.
Ms. Zhang went on a hunger strike after her arrest in May last year. Her lawyers previously said that authorities had used a feeding tube to feed her and restrain her hands. Her mother, Shao Wenxia, described it as a “partial hunger strike,” in which Ms. Zhang ate fruits and cookies, but no meat, rice, or vegetables.
The journalist appeared at her trial in December in a wheelchair, and one of her lawyers said at the time that she had already lost a lot of weight and that her appearance had changed enormously from a few weeks earlier.
Ms. Zhang, who was 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 lawyer, Zhang Keke. He shared the message with The New York Times.
Ms. Zhang’s mother has not been able to see her in person since her arrest because the authorities have refused to allow her to visit her, Zhang said. Ms. Shao said in the message that her daughter was hospitalized on July 31 and her family was allowed to speak with her by phone on August 2. He returned to prison on August 11.
“She still insisted that she is not guilty and that she will not eat regularly,” Ms Shao wrote. Ms. Zhang suffered from a gastric ulcer and was so weak that she needed help getting 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 Bureau, when contacted by phone on Tuesday, confirmed that Ms. Zhang had returned to the Shanghai Women’s Prison after receiving medical treatment, but declined to answer further questions about Your condition.
So far, Ms. Zhang has not responded to her family’s pleas for her to eat normally again.
“Our first hope is that he can stop his hunger strike,” said Peng Yonghe, a Chinese lawyer and friend of Ms. Zhang. “Second, we hope he can get out as soon as possible.”
Mr. Peng cautioned that Ms. Zhang’s condition was unlikely to lead to an early release. While the Chinese system allows medical parole, the conditions brought on by a hunger strike would not qualify, he said.
Human rights activists have expressed fear that if Ms. Zhang’s health does not improve, she could share the fate of other Chinese dissidents who have died in custody.
“In fact, he could die in prison,” said Wang Jianhong, who heads the US-based human rights group Humanitarian China. “It is not unfounded because we have seen many previous examples.”
Cao Shunli, who had demanded that an official human rights report that China submitted to the United Nations include citizen voices, died of a lung infection in 2014. His family said he had been denied timely medical treatment. Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison, died of liver cancer while under surveillance at a hospital in 2017.
Ms. Zhang refused to appeal her conviction and told her lawyers that she refused to acknowledge the validity of the legal process used to imprison her.
She was the first citizen journalist attempted to challenge the official narrative of the response to the China pandemic. Others, including Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua, were arrested and reportedly later released, although it appears that Mr. Chen is under surveillance. The whereabouts of another, Fang Bin, remains unclear.
The media in China is strictly controlled by the government, and social media platforms like Weibo censor sensitive topics. But in the early days of the pandemic, when authorities were distracted with controlling the outbreak, some citizen journalists, working independently, undermined the official narrative of a heroic response.
While in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus first emerged, Ms Zhang posted videos showing how the outbreak had occurred. overwhelmed a hospital and a crematorium. It showed how the severe blockade of the city had forced businesses to close and raised vegetable prices.
After a city official said residents should be taught how to properly express their gratitude to the government, she Interviewed people on the streets about whether they were grateful.
“We are adults,” he said. “We don’t need to be taught.”
In what turned out to be his last video before his arrest, he criticized what he saw as an unduly harsh means of enforcing the lockdown in Wuhan.
“The government’s way of managing this city has been intimidation and threats,” he said. said. “This is truly the tragedy of this country.”