Chinese woman jailed for reporting on COVID is set to be freed

BEIJING — Zhang Zhan, thought to be the first person in China imprisoned for documenting the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in the country, was expected to be released Monday, after serving a four-year sentence.

But in a sign of how eager the Chinese government remains to suppress public discussion of the outbreak, it was unclear on Monday evening whether Zhang, 40, had actually been set free. The lawyer who represented Zhang during her trial, Zhang Keke (the two are not related), said he could not reach her mother all day. Reached by phone, officials at the Shanghai prison administration declined to comment.


“Even though she will have served her sentence, there are doubts regarding the Chinese regime’s willingness to give her back her freedom,” Reporters Without Borders, the international media watchdog group, said in a statement several days before her expected release. The group, which gave Zhang a press freedom award in 2021, noted that journalists released from imprisonment in China are often kept under surveillance.

Zhang was an early symbol of the mistrust that many Chinese harbored toward the government’s handling of the outset of the pandemic, and the hunger they had for unfiltered information.

A former lawyer from Shanghai, she traveled in early 2020 to Wuhan, the city where the virus was first detected, as a self-styled citizen journalist.

For months, she filmed amateur, often shaky videos that contradicted the government’s narrative of a smooth, triumphant response to the crisis. She visited a crematory and a crowded hospital, where rolling beds lined the hallway. She recorded the city’s empty train station and tried to interview residents about the lockdown, though many brushed her off or requested anonymity, seemingly out of fear of reprisals.

She had never done any reporting before, friends said at the time, but she was motivated by her Christian faith and a sense of outrage at the government’s one-sided narrative.

“If we just wallow in our sadness and don’t do something to change this reality, then our emotions are cheap,” Zhang said in one video.

The government, busy trying to contain infections and maintain the lockdown of the city of 11 million, for a time let a small measure of independent reporting on the outbreak slip through. Some of Zhang’s videos that she posted to Chinese social media were censored, but she also uploaded them to YouTube, which is banned in China.

But before long, the crackdown on independent reporting began in earnest. Other citizen journalists started disappearing. Zhang acknowledged the risks but kept posting — about the lockdown, and then, after it was lifted in April 2020, its aftermath. Then, that May, she was arrested and brought back to Shanghai.

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