Chinese Woman Jailed for Reporting on Covid Set to be Freed

By John Mercury May 15, 2024

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 on 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 Ms. Zhang, 40, had actually been set free. The lawyer who represented Ms. 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 Ms. Zhang a press freedom award in 2021, noted that journalists released from imprisonment in China are often kept under surveillance.

Ms. 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.


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