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Opinion What is China trying to hide about the coronavirus?

A Chinese court handed a four-year jail term on Dec. 28 to a citizen-journalist who reported from Wuhan during the peak of the city's coronavirus outbreak. (Video: Reuters)

WHAT IS China trying to conceal? That question arises from Beijing’s decision to prosecute Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old citizen journalist who roamed Wuhan at the time of the coronavirus outbreak, posting brief but revealing videos about the spreading disease in the first stage of what became a global pandemic. She was detained, as were several other citizen journalists who attempted to report on the Wuhan outbreak. On Monday, Ms. Zhang was sentenced in Shanghai to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” the usual Chinese charge used to silence dissent.

Ms. Zhang, a former lawyer, spent three months in Wuhan and posted 122 YouTube videos, the first of which she titled “My claim for the right of free speech.” She arrived in the city Feb. 1, and her first impression was shock: “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.” She had traveled there after hearing that people in Wuhan felt abandoned. Her recordings confirmed chaos inside a hospital. When a security official confronted her and demanded she stop filming, she decided to do more — traveling around the stricken city in February and March, posting her videos online for all to see.

Her reporting so alarmed the authorities that she was arrested. In jail, she later went on a hunger strike in protest and was force-fed.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

On Sept. 23, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin declared, “China’s epidemic response has been open and transparent every step of the way. The timeline is clear, and the facts and data speak for themselves.” If so, why have at least three other citizen journalists been detained?

China’s spin in recent months has been that President Xi Jinping led a heroic campaign to stop the virus. In fact, officials in Wuhan attempted to clamp down on information about the new disease in December 2019, and when eight doctors expressed concern about the sickness, they were reprimanded for spreading rumors. A second coverup took place in early January, as the local and the national government remained silent while the virus spread. China’s top officials, including Mr. Xi, knew of human transmission early in the month but said nothing in public until Jan. 20. China’s announced death toll appears to be a huge underestimate. More recently, Chinese officials have been suggesting the virus had origins outside its borders.

So, again: What is China trying to hide? As we have noted previously, an independent and credible investigation of the origins of the virus is absolutely essential to properly prepare for and prevent a future pandemic. The prosecution of Ms. Zhang raises grave doubts about whether China can be trusted to produce an open and honest investigation. Instead of putting her in jail, China should release her and thank her for the courage to do what the cowards in the party-state would not.

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