A Chinese citizen journalist who accused Wuhan authorities of cover-up in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic has been sentenced to four years in prison, as Beijing seeks to affirm its official account that he has managed to manage the ‘epidemic.
Zhang Zhan, a lawyer turned activist and freelance blogger, was detained in may after posting dozens of videos taken in the central Chinese city where the virus was discovered in December 2019.
Zhang, 37, was sentenced in a Shanghai court on Monday for “provoking quarrels and causing unrest”, a common charge against activists believed to have undermined China’s social stability, according to Zhang Keke, one of its lawyers.
The Chinese government has sought to minimize his early mishandling of the virus in favor of highlighting his later successes in quelling transmission. China has benefited from a strong economic recovery on the backs of largely controlling the virus, even though much of the world remains mired in the doldrums.
Citizen journalists and independent media reported chaotic scenes in Wuhan during the outbreak’s first weeks, with internet censors and government propagandists overwhelmed by the outcry.
Public anger peaked in early February when Chinese social media was filled with tributes to Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor who was reprimanded by police after raising awareness of the then-unknown disease before dying.
But the official narrative was quickly reaffirmed. In addition to Zhang, at least three other citizen journalists – Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua – were arrested after publishing critical reports on the government’s response and are still awaiting trial.
Even narratives of more moderate voices, like the Wuhan-based writer Fang Fang, who ran a popular online newspaper of daily life in the city, faced censorship and attacks from conservative nationalists.
Zhang posted excerpts from interviews and comments for three months on Chinese social media sites, documenting the Wuhan authorities’ repeated failures. She also posted articles on Twitter and YouTube, US platforms blocked in China.
She spoke to struggling local business owners and met with families facing pressure from the police to remain silent about their lost loved ones. In her latest video from May 13, she accused the government of “violating human rights” by failing to protect the livelihoods of the city’s workers.
Mr. Zhang, the lawyer, posted the verdict on Twitter and said his client barely spoke in court except to say that a citizen’s speech should not be censored.
He added that Zhang arrived at the hearing in a wheelchair. Zhang has repeatedly staged hunger strikes to protest the charges against her, according to accounts from her lawyers.
The onset of winter has triggered warnings from Chinese officials of the need to avoid potential relapses by using strict local lockdowns and mass testing after a handful of locally transmitted infections were discovered.
The National Health Commission on Monday reported 21 new symptomatic infections, 15 of which were imported by people returning from overseas and six in northeast Liaoning Province.
In Beijing, the discovery of 10 cases in the capital’s Shunyi district prompted local authorities to declare “wartime” measures and perform hundreds of thousands of swab tests.
Dozens of lawyers and human rights activists who have openly advocated for greater government accountability and the protection of civil liberties have been jailed since Xi Jinping became Chinese president in 2012.
Chinese courts routinely drop cases deemed sensitive in the last weeks of the year during the holiday season, a time when many Western diplomats and journalists are on vacation.