Almost two years after the coronavirus first struck the central Chinese city of Wuhan, life has largely returned to normal for most people in China.
But Zhang Zhan’s battle is far from over. The 38-year-old citizen journalist and former lawyer remains behind bars on a hunger strike, protesting against her four-year prison sentence for her coverage of the early days of the pandemic.
Family members say her weight has dropped perilously low and they fear she might not survive the winter.
Zhang was jailed in December last year for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”– a catch-all charge often used by authorities to stifle dissent.
The sentence was in response to reports that she live-streamed from Wuhan on social media platforms, including Twitter and YouTube, which are both blocked in China.
She also wrote an article critical of the official response to the outbreak, accusing authorities of infringing people’s rights and covering up the severity of the epidemic.
Her coverage was deemed “maliciously fabricated content and false information” and she became the first so-called citizen journalist tried by a Chinese court for reporting on the coronavirus outbreaks in the city.
A month after her arrest in May last year, Zhang began an intermittent hunger strike. She was forced fed through a nasal tube from time to time and physically restrained from removing the tube.
By the time of her trial in December, Zhang Zhan told her lawyer Zhang Keke that she was “mentally and physically exhausted”.
She attended the trial in a wheelchair but pressed on with her hunger strike in protest against what she called an “unlawful detention and indictment”.
She lost a severe amount of weight and had to be hospitalised a number of times.
Her brother Zhang Ju said Zhang Zhan’s weight was already down to 40kg (88lbs) in August and her condition had deteriorated since then.
In a virtual meeting with her mother last month, Zhang Zhan, who is 177cm (5ft 9inches) tall, appeared “completely out of shape” and was “unable to walk on her own”, Zhang Ju said.
“[In August] the prison doctor already acknowledged that Zhang Zhan could die, weighing only 40kg. I think she is well below 40kg now,” he said.
“Zhang Zhan’s condition is much worse than it was in the summer. Her life is in danger,” he said, saying the family feared she “might not make it through this winter”.
“My mother couldn’t stop crying after the meeting. The lawyer is applying for medical parole but the chance of approval is extremely slim.”
Zhang Zhan’s mother declined requests for an interview.
Zhang Ju said he did not want his sister to disappear without a trace and had begun retelling stories from her childhood online in Chinese and English.
“I fear that Zhang Zhan may die [in prison] and the world wouldn’t know about it,” he said.
“Her existence is not tolerated in [China] and her work is censored so most Chinese people don’t know about it. But it doesn’t mean she will not be praised or recognised by the world in the future.
“Her work is significant but it comes as an enormous tragedy to herself and her family.”
Gwen Lee, China campaigner at Amnesty International, said Zhang should not have been prosecuted in the first place for “uncovering what was happening in Wuhan amid huge government secrecy about the pandemic”.
Lee said Zhang Zhan’s conviction was a “shameful attack on human rights” and called for her to be granted urgent parole for medical treatment.
“[Zhang] now appears to be at grave risk of dying in prison ... Zhang is a victim of the Chinese government’s zero-tolerance approach to criticism and opposing views,” Lee said.
“She has been imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising her right to freedom of expression and she must be immediately and unconditionally released.”
Before the pandemic, Zhang had been in trouble with the authorities for opposing censorship. In August 2018, she was warned by police for allegedly inciting subversion. She was also detained in April and November 2019 for “picking quarrels” and “disrupting public order”.
She was one of a few citizen journalists in China to report on the early experiences of people in Wuhan during the city’s lockdown early last year. The others have either been detained or ordered to stop reporting. Three other citizen journalists – Chen Qiushi , Li Zehua and Fang Bin – have been detained for their coverage of the pandemic in Wuhan.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.