THE early days of the novel coronavirus were soaked in unknowing. There was very little that was known about the virus, how it was transmitted, what symptoms it caused, how many had it and how many were dying of it. Some said that the Chinese government was hiding information to prevent the world from knowing how terrible the situation was. The city of Wuhan was the centre of the world’s attention; the virus was supposed to have first jumped species at a wet market, moving from bat to rodent to human in the most lethal chain in modern history. What was happening in Wuhan in those early days was a mystery, even as the whole globe — ordinary people, world-renowned epidemiologists and infectious disease doctors, world leaders — was hungry for information.
Amid this environment of darkness and fear, Chinese lawyer turned citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was a beam of light. A resident of Shanghai, Zhang travelled to Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic. In Wuhan, she became one of a few citizen journalists who made videos of what was happening inside the plagued city and posting them for all the world, not to mention the rest of China, to see. She made videos of the terrible overcrowding at hospitals and clinics. She made videos of the strictness of the lockdown and the people who were being punished by police for minor violations of the lockdown rules.
Zhang was a critic of the Chinese government, its secretive ways and what she saw as mismanagement of the pandemic. “The government’s way of managing this city has just been intimidation and threats. This is truly the tragedy of this country,” the 37-year-old declared in one of her videos. Soon after this, she disappeared, messages to her went unanswered, and her social media accounts became inactive.
Eventually, her friends found out that Zhang had been arrested in May and taken to Shanghai, where she was being held under charges of spreading lies and making up false information. In prison, her lawyers said, Zhang began a hunger strike. In response, the Chinese government authorities force-fed her with a feeding tube. They restrained her arms to make sure she would not pull it out.
Zhang Zhan became one of a few people who made videos of what was happening inside Wuhan for all the world to see.
On Dec 28, 2020, as the novel coronavirus continued to rage around the globe, mutating into new and more transmissible forms, Zhang was tried in a court in Shanghai. When she was produced in court by prison authorities, she was in a wheelchair and was barely recognisable from her former self. The only words she spoke were a short statement saying that people’s speech should not be censored.
Her condition did not stop the court from delivering judgement on the official charges, which translate to “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. According to The New York Times, China uses this vague category of crime to punish all those that it perceives as critical of the government.
In the short sham of a trial, which very few people were permitted to attend, the judge easily found Zhang guilty. For the crime of sharing crucial and lifesaving information with the world at one of the most horrific moments in human history, she was sentenced to four years in prison. As the judge handed out the sentence, Zhang’s mother, who had not seen her daughter ever since her arrest in May 2020, sobbed loudly. It didn’t matter, of course; the outcome of the trial had, like so many others in China, been predetermined. Zhang had dared to criticise the Chinese government, and for that she would have to suffer, be restrained and force-fed, and be imprisoned for four long years.
Along with Zhang Zhan, other critics of the Chinese government who have dared speak out about its ability to manage the pandemic were also arrested. Most of them, however, have been released, yet Zhang appears to have been handed down the harshest prison sentence, perhaps because she is not willing to admit that what she did was wrong.
Indeed, it was not wrong at all. Zhang provided a glimpse into Wuhan, the epicentre of the global Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when many were not even sure there was a new virus. While the Chinese government denies it, it is not known whether they would have admitted to the fact that there was a novel coronavirus that may have originated in a wet market in Wuhan at all. While they would not be able to hide it forever, the early leaked videos produced by Zhang likely created crucial pressure that forced the Chinese government to come clean.
Once upon a time, the international human rights framework ensured that women like Zhang who performed such a valuable service for the world would not be punished and left to languish in a Chinese jail. Human rights advocates would ensure that her case received attention and demand that the Chinese government release her. The failure of that system can be witnessed by the simple fact that, one week after the European Union issued a statement criticising the Chinese government for its treatment of Zhang, they turned around and signed a trade treaty with the very same government.
People often praise China by saying that it is unstoppable in its march towards world domination. They neglect to mention that China is also unstoppable in this other way, punishing the brave truth-tellers who put the welfare of the world before their own self-interest. Zhang’s story should provoke some questions about all the other truths that are successfully suppressed by the Chinese government. An emerging superpower that cares more about image rather than truth is unlikely to be concerned with anything except its own survival.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2021