A former lawyer and citizen journalist from Shanghai who criticised the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak on social media has been detained, joining a growing list of dissidents to be silenced after speaking out about the crisis.
According to friends, Zhang Zhan’s family received official confirmation on Friday that the 37-year-old was being held at a detention centre in Shanghai Pudong New District. She has been accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a vague charge often used to detain dissidents in China.
Zhang had been in Wuhan – where the first cases of the new coronavirus were reported late last year – since February 1 and live-streamed her experience in the central Chinese city on Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms. Both Twitter and YouTube are blocked in China.
Zhang also wrote a story that was critical of the authorities’ response to the outbreak, saying the government should not undermine human rights.
“The government isolates individuals from the outside world in the name of treatment. In the name of maintaining stability, the number of infections and deaths is covered up. The media is kept under control in the name of ‘positive energy’,” Zhang wrote in the article posted on Twitter on February 16. “[The authorities] are coercively and violently ordering and depriving people of their basic human and property rights.”
Three other citizen journalists are known to have disappeared in Wuhan. Li Zehua, also known as Kcriss Li, re-emerged on social media in late April after he had been missing for nearly two months, saying he was held at a quarantine centre in the city then sent to an isolation facility his hometown.
Chen Qiushi, a former human rights lawyer turned video journalist, travelled to Wuhan in late January to report on the worsening situation. “I will use my camera to document what is really happening. I promise I won’t … cover up the truth,” he said in his first YouTube video from Wuhan, where he visited hospitals, speaking to patients and filming the conditions.
Another high-profile vlogger, Fang Bin, had been posting videos about the outbreak in Wuhan to “report on the true situation” since late January.
Both Chen and Fang have not been seen since early February.
Last week Zhang Xuezhong, a constitutional scholar based in Shanghai, was taken away after posting an open letter calling for political reform in China and criticising the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. He was released a day later.
While she was in Wuhan, Zhang Zhan also tried to help people who had lost loved ones to the disease. That included giving legal advice to Yang Min, who is under house arrest after petitioning for justice for her daughter, who died from Covid-19 on February 6.
“Zhang Zhan is a pure person and I admire her very much – she sees injustice and wants to help,” Yang said.
Zhang’s last video was a live YouTube broadcast on Wednesday evening from Hankou Railway Station Square in Wuhan. Her friends lost contact with her the next day.
One friend went to a hotel where Zhang had been staying near the railway station on Friday, but a staff member said she had checked out, and that “since you came to see her, you should know what happened to her”, without elaborating.
The same day, officers from the Shanghai Pudong Public Security Bureau returned Zhang’s belongings to her parents’ home in Shanghai, according to Zhang’s friends. Her parents declined to comment.
She had told friends that she was being followed a few days before she lost contact with them.
Yang Zhanqing, a friend and activist based in New York who is part of a legal advisory group helping people affected by the coronavirus, said he had told Zhang to lie low for a while before she was detained, but she refused.
“I think Zhang Zhan planned to observe and record the epidemic in Wuhan. She tried to find people who shared her values so they could act together, to prompt social change and end the tyranny of the Communist Party – that’s a lofty goal,” Yang said.
Zhang, who was raised in Shaanxi province in the northwest, was previously detained for more than 60 days in September on suspicion of “disturbing the public order”. She was taken away after marching through People’s Square in downtown Shanghai in solidarity with the Hong Kong anti-government protesters, carrying an umbrella with the words: “End socialism, Communist Party down.”
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