The United Nations has called on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to immediately release imprisoned Chinese journalist Zhang Zhan.
International attention has focused on Zhang, who was jailed for reporting on the beginnings of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.
The 38-year-old lawyer turned journalist was detained in May, 2020, and sentenced to four years in prison that December.
Jailed for Exposing Wuhan Virus in 2020, Zhang Zhan ‘Close to Death’ in Prison
In a Nov. 20 press release, U.N. Human Rights Office spokeswoman Marta Hurtado called for Zhang’s “immediate and unconditional release,” requesting that the Chinese authorities “at the very least … make urgent life-saving medical care available.”
She expressed concern for Zhang’s life due to her “rapidly deteriorating health,” and commended her for “documenting the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Chinese city of Wuhan.”
“The free flow of relevant information is of particular importance in the early stages of crisis situations such as public health emergencies,” she stressed, adding that all countries should respect the rights of journalists and citizens in implementing pandemic control measures.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced on Nov. 17 that the 2021 Prize for Courage had been awarded to Zhang Zhan.
According to the Chinese government, “Zhang Zhan was sentenced on December 28, 2020 to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” the announcement read.
“Despite constant threats, this lawyer-turned-journalist covered the Covid-19 outbreak in the city of Wuhan in February 2020, live-streaming video reports on social media that showed the city’s streets and hospitals, and the families of the sick. Her reporting from the heart of the pandemic’s initial epicenter was one of the main sources of independent information about the health situation in Wuhan at the time.”
Governments call for Zhang’s release
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters during a press briefing on Nov. 8 that “The United States, along with other diplomatic missions have repeatedly expressed our serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of [Zhang’s] detention and her mistreatment during it. We reiterate our call to the PRC [People’s Republic of China] for her immediate and unconditional release and for Beijing to respect a free press and the right of people to express themselves freely.”
The German Federal Foreign Office confirmed to broadcaster ARD on Nov. 16 that the German Embassy in China had petitioned the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Zhang Zhan’s immediate release.
‘A person with moral integrity is what the CCP fears’
Acclaimed human rights activist Chen Guangcheng told the Chinese-language edition of The Epoch Times on Nov. 17 that the CCP has made much effort to shift international attention from investigating the source of the virus’ outbreak, and that this is why it has come down so hard on those to dare to report on the truth of what happened in Wuhan.
Furthermore, Zhang Zhan did not cave in to political pressure: “She has been on a hunger strike since the day she was jailed. A person with such moral integrity is exactly what the CCP fears,” Chen said.
Chen, who escaped China in 2012, is known for his work helping disenfranchised Chinese, including AIDS victims and women persecuted under the infamous one-child policy. He was arrested, but international outcry over the blind activist’s treatment led to leniency from the CCP authorities.
He continues to call for international pressure on Beijing’s human rights abuses: “The CCP can commit the most vicious crimes as long as there are no calls and attention from overseas.”
“The international community’s call for releasing Zhang has begun to have an effect” in angering Beijing, Chen said, pointing to the large quantity of abusive posts produced by what appear to be pro-CCP trolls.
Zhang on the ‘verge of death’
Earlier this month, reports emerged that Zhang is on the “verge of death” following her hunger strike in prison, prompting protest from Chinese human rights activists as well as international observers.
Beijing-based human rights lawyer Wang Yu told Radio Free Asia on Nov. 16 that “regardless of the law, from the basis of human decency, Zhang should be released to receive medical treatment. It is at a critical point to save her life.”
Learning that Zhang’s family had submitted an application for medical parole on Nov. 15, people in China and abroad penned an open letter to the directors of the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Justice and the Shanghai Women’s Jail.
The letter raised concern over Zhang’s precarious health situation. “We are distraught. To prevent tragedy, we appeal to have a physical examination and emergency treatment for her,” the letter, translated by human rights website China Change, reads.
As of Nov. 18, more than 405 people have signed the open letter, including dozens of noted Chinese human rights activists, among them lawyers Wang Yu, Wang Quanzhang, Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Xie Yang, and others.
Li Yu, an activist in eastern China’s Shandong Province who has spent years protesting illegal seizure and demolition of property, told The Epoch Times she admired Zhang’s perseverance.
Placed under house arrest and quarantined by local authorities for 14 days in Beijing’s Fangshan District —supposedly for violating epidemic control ordinances — Li said that the experience made her appreciate Zhang’s sacrifice even more.
“Zhang and I are of the same age,” Li said shortly after her release on Nov. 17. “What Zhang has done is extraordinary. It’s great. She’s using her life to try to change this country and the system.”