The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion She told the truth about Wuhan. Now she is near death in a Chinese prison.

Former Chinese lawyer and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan is seen in a screenshot taken on Dec. 28, 2020, from an undated video. (AFP PHOTO/YouTube) (Handout/AFP/Getty Images)

China committed one act of barbarity when it prosecuted the citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for her revealing look at Wuhan in the first stages of what became a global pandemic. Ms. Zhang was sentenced in December to four years in prison on the specious charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” which China uses to suffocate free speech. Now her health has deteriorated, and relatives say she is near death. China will compound the barbarity unless it sets her free and saves her life.

Ms. Zhang, a former lawyer, made an indelible contribution to our understanding of what happened in Wuhan. Over three months there, she posted 122 YouTube videos, the first of which she titled “My claim for the right of free speech.” When she got to Wuhan on Feb. 1, 2020, she later recalled, “There was not a single soul. It felt as if I stumbled on a movie set right after the shooting was over and everybody has left the set. The world didn’t feel real.” Her videos confirmed chaos inside a hospital. Ordered to stop filming, she moved around the city in February and March, posting what she witnessed.

Her arrest and imprisonment are part of China’s larger coverup. In December 2019, officials in Wuhan attempted to hide information about the outbreak of a new disease; when eight doctors expressed concern about the sickness, they were reprimanded. A second coverup occurred in early January 2020, when top Chinese officials remained silent, although they knew of human transmission of the virus, and informed the public only on Jan. 20. A third coverup has involved their repeated attempts to frustrate investigation into the origins of the pandemic and their campaign to blame it on sources outside China.

After she was detained in May 2020, Ms. Zhang went on a hunger strike and was force-fed through a tube. She is now reportedly eating very little, but not refusing food, to avoid being force-fed again. But her health has waned. Her brother, Zhang Ju, posted on Twitter on Oct. 30: “She is so stubborn. I think she may not live long.” He added, “She may not survive the coming cold winter. I hope the world remember how she used to be.” Her mother saw Ms. Zhang in a video call Oct. 28 and told Radio Free Asia, “She can’t walk unassisted now, and her head keeps drooping as she speaks. She will be in huge danger if they don’t release her on medical parole.” She added, “I cried for several hours straight after I got out” from the call.

Ms. Zhang should be saluted for her intrepid attempts to record the chaos and cataclysm of Wuhan in those early weeks. She was a sentinel of a looming disaster. Her journalism was not a crime. She must not spend another moment behind bars. She must not be allowed to die.

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