She Chronicled China’s Disaster. Now She Is Accused of Spreading Lies

In one video, she filmed a hospital corridor lined with rollaway beds during the lockdown in Wuhan, where patients were connected to blue oxygen tanks. In another case, she waved over a community health center and noticed a man said he had been charged with a coronavirus test, even though residents believed the tests would be free.

At the time, Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer who became a citizen journalist, embodied the Chinese people’s hunger for unfiltered information about the epidemic. Now she has become a symbol of the government’s efforts to deny its early failures in the crisis and instead promote a victorious narrative.

Ms. Zhang abruptly stopped posting in May after several months of posting. The police later announced that she had been arrested and charged with telling lies. On Monday, she will go to court in the first known trial against a chronicler of the Chinese coronavirus crisis.

Ms. Zhang continued to challenge the authorities from prison. Soon after she was arrested, Ms. Zhang went on a hunger strike, according to her lawyers. She had become gaunt and drained but refused to eat, the lawyers said, claiming her strike was her form of protest against her unjust detention.

“She said she refused to attend the trial. She says it is an insult, ”said Ren Quanniu, one of the lawyers after visiting Ms. Zhang in Shanghai in mid-December, where she is being held.

The prosecution of Ms. Zhang is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s continued campaign to reformulate China’s treatment of the outbreak as a result of wise, triumphant government moves. Critics who pointed to the officials’ early missteps have been arrested, censored or threatened by the police. Three other citizen journalists disappeared from Wuhan’s Ms. Zhang, although none of the others were publicly charged.

The prosecutor accused Ms. Zhang of “disputing and provoking trouble” – a common charge against government critics – and recommended a sentence of between four and five years.

“She was shocked,” said Mr. Ren. “She didn’t think it would be that hard.”

Ms. Zhang was part of a wave of journalists, professionals, and amateurs who flocked to Wuhan after the lockdown in late January. Authorities were busy trying to deal with the chaos of the outbreak and for a short time China’s strict censorship regime was relaxed. Reporters used this window to share residents’ raw reports of terror and anger.

In her first few weeks, Ms. Zhang visited a crematorium, a crowded hospital corridor, and the city’s abandoned train station. On March 7th, when Wuhan’s top Communist Party official said residents should undergo a “gratitude education” to thank the government for their efforts against epidemics, Ms. Zhang walked the streets and asked passers-by if they were grateful.

“Can you teach gratitude? If you can, it has to be a false gratitude, ”she said afterwards into the camera. “We are adults. We don’t need to be taught. “

Ms. Zhang’s videos were often shaky and unedited, and sometimes only lasted a few seconds. They often showed the challenges of independent reporting in China under the influence of the party. Many residents ignored Ms. Zhang or told her to go. When they talked, they asked them to point the camera at their feet.

While posting some videos and essays on WeChat, a popular messaging service in China, she said she encountered censorship frequently on the platform. It relied largely on YouTube and Twitter, which are blocked in China but accessible through virtual private networks.


Apr. 25, 2020, 7:16 am ET

Ms. Zhang had never been a citizen journalist before traveling to Wuhan from Shanghai, where she lived, said Li Dawei, a friend who often exchanged news with her while reporting. But she is persistent and idealistic, he said, to a point that is sometimes difficult to understand.

Ms. Zhang seemed to know the risks of her actions. In one of her first videos on February 7th, she mentioned that another citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, had just disappeared and another, Fang Bin, was being monitored. Whistleblower doctors have been silenced, she added.

“But as someone who cares about the truth in this country, we must say that if we wallow in our sadness and do nothing to change that reality, our feelings are cheap,” said Ms. Zhang.

Not long after that, Mr. Fang disappeared. So did Li Zehua, another citizen journalist who traveled to Wuhan. China’s leader Xi Jinping recently ordered officials to “strengthen the leadership of public opinion,” and hundreds of state-run media journalists were posted to the city.

The approach also extended to people who had tried to document the crisis in a less direct way. In April, three volunteers who had created an online archive of censored news articles about the epidemic went missing. Two were later accused of picking up disputes and provoking trouble, although family members say their trials have not yet started.

Recognition…Chen Qiushi, via Associated Press

Despite the scrutiny, Ms. Zhang moved around Wuhan for several weeks, possibly also because she did not attract a large following. Some of their videos have only been viewed a few hundred times on YouTube.

Her friend, Mr. Li, warned that the authorities would eventually lose patience, especially as Ms. Zhang became braver. She once went to police stations to inquire about the missing citizen journalists.

“She believed me, but she still didn’t want to quit,” recalled Mr. Li. “She said, ‘I haven’t finished my job in Wuhan yet.'”

In mid-May, Ms. Zhang suddenly stopped responding, Mr. Li said. He later learned that she had been arrested and taken to Shanghai. The prosecution, under review by the New York Times, accused Ms. Zhang of “fabricating lies and spreading false information.” It was also suggested that she had given interviews with “foreign media outlets” such as Radio Free Asia and the Epoch Times.

According to her lawyers, Ms. Zhang started refusing to eat soon after she was arrested. When one of them, Zhang Ke Ke, visited her in prison earlier this month, he saw that her hands were handcuffed, according to a post on his WeChat account. Ms. Zhang stated that the guards regularly inserted a feeding tube and tied her hands so she could not pull it out, Mr. Zhang wrote. (The two Zhangs are not related.)

Ms. Zhang said she was dizzy and had a stomach ache, Mr. Zhang continued. As a Christian, she wished she had a Bible and quoted him from 1 Corinthians: “God is faithful, who does not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can.”

Both Mr. Zhang and Mr. Ren, who later visited separately, asked Ms. Zhang for food. But she refused, said Mr. Ren.

“She is much paler than in her videos and photos – deadly pale,” said Mr. Ren, adding that Ms. Zhang appeared to have aged several decades. “It’s really hard to believe she’s the same person you saw online.”

China’s judicial system is notoriously opaque and sensitive cases are often tried behind closed doors. In 2019, the conviction rate for Chinese courts was 99.9 percent, according to government statistics. Ms. Zhang’s lawyers recently requested that Ms. Zhang’s trial be streamed live to ensure transparency, but they did not hear about it, Mr. Ren said.

Of the other disappeared citizen journalists, only one, Mr. Li, has appeared in public. On a YouTube video in April, he said he was violently quarantined but not charged. Another, Mr. Chen, is reportedly with his family but has not spoken publicly. Friends say he’s under surveillance. There was no news from Mr. Fang.

In her penultimate video before her own arrest, Ms. Zhang was walking down a street in a neighborhood where cases had recently been reported. While she was filming the shutters, a man in a neon vest marked her “on duty” and asked her where she lived and if she was a journalist. When Ms. Zhang rejected him, he yelled, “If you post this online, you must take responsibility.”

“I take responsibility for all of my actions,” Ms. Zhang yelled back. “You also need to take responsibility for your actions as law enforcement agencies.”

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