China sentences citizen journalist to four years in prison for challenging COVID-19 response narrative

Domestic News

Zhang Zhan, a freelance video journalist who documented the early days of Wuhan’s lockdown and criticized the government’s response, was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Throughout 2020, the Chinese government has punished citizens who challenge the official narrative that China’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19 was entirely timely and transparent.

  • Two prominent figures who condemned Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 and his government’s handling of COVID-19 were detained and punished: Real estate tycoon Rèn Zhìqiáng 任志强 was sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption after he called Xi a “clown,” and Tsinghua University professor Xǔ Zhāngrùn 许章润 was stripped of his titles and is now under strict surveillance at his house.
  • Citizen journalists also came under pressure. Three disappeared early in the year after reporting from Wuhan — Fāng Bīn 方斌, Chén Qiūshí 陈秋实, and Lǐ Zéhuá 李泽华 — though while Fang remains incommunicado, Chen and Li have since resurfaced.
  • A fourth freelance journalist was detained in May: Zhāng Zhǎn 张展.

Today, Zhang became the first known journalist to be sentenced to jail in China for reporting on the early days of the epidemic. The Wall Street Journal reports that she was “convicted of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ after a roughly 2½-hour trial at the Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court…where prosecutors accused her of spreading falsehoods about the coronavirus pandemic through social-media posts and interviews with overseas media.”

  • Zhang had posted “more than 120 YouTube videos” about the conditions in Wuhan, including commentary on what she saw as governmental missteps, but prosecutors reportedly declined “to present specific examples” of what information was false.
  • Zhang was sentenced to four years in prison, though a lawyer for Zhang told Reuters, “We will probably appeal.”

Outside the court, “police pushed reporters and supporters away from the building, detaining at least nine people,” per the Washington Post. AFP reporter Laurie Chen has a Twitter thread with videos of the scene outside the court.

Why now, and why so harsh a sentence?

China has a well-documented habit of conducting politically sensitive arrests and trials around the December holidays, when much of the outside world is paying less attention. A year ago, Wáng Yí 王怡, one of the country’s most famous Christian pastors, was sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”

Zhang’s “refusal to cooperate or admit guilt” may have contributed to her more severe punishment, advocates told the Washington Post.

  • She “went on a hunger strike in late June,” according to court documents, Reuters reports. “Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube. By December, she was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection.”
  • “She has pledged to continue her hunger strike, according to her lawyer, despite pleas from family and friends,” the Washington Post says.

See also:

  • Record number of journalists jailed worldwide / Committee to Protect Journalists
    “China, which arrested several journalists for their coverage of the pandemic, was the world’s worst jailer for the second year in a row.”