Zhang Zhan was jailed in 2020 for reporting on the Chinese government’s response in the early days of the pandemic

A Chinese woman who reported on the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic is due to be released on Monday after spending four years in jail, in Shanghai.

Zhang Zhan travelled to Wuhan in February 2020 to document the Chinese government’s response to the spread of COVID-19. She posted reports on Twitter, YouTube and the Chinese messaging service WeChat.

“I can’t find anything to say except that the city is paralysed because everything is under cover,” she said in one of her videos.

“That’s what this country is facing now… They imprison us in the name of pandemic prevention and restrict our freedom. We must not talk to strangers: it’s dangerous. So without the truth, everything is meaningless. If we cannot get to the truth, if we cannot break the monopoly of the truth, the world means nothing to us.”

Zhang was arrested in May 2020 and sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge that is often used to prosecute dissidents.

During her time in prison she has held hunger strikes to protest her conviction. At one point, she may have lost almost half her body weight, according to her former lawyer, Renn Quanniu, who described seeing her with a feeding-tube inserted into her nose and her hands tied, so that she could not remove the tube.

Quanniu says that Zhang was treated “particularly harshly” by the authorities.

“The judge said that her crime was going to Wuhan to do interviews and investigations. But in fact, what the judge didn’t like was that she collected those materials and put them on Twitter… and received interviews from so-called enemy media.”

Her family and international organizations made repeated pleas for her to be released. In 2021, hundreds of Chinese human-rights lawyers and citizens added their names to an open letter calling for medical care to be administered to her immediately.

“When many people fled Wuhan in fear, Zhang went in alone. This kind of courage is rare,” the letter said.

“[Her behaviour] is behaviour a modern government should encourage. It not only contributes to disaster relief, but creates an atmosphere of mutual assistance and friendship… It is unjust to use criminal means to punish Zhang Zhan’s actions, which were not only harmless but helpful.”

It’s probable that Zhang will not be given full freedom after leaving prison, but will instead be taken to a location where her contact with the outside world can be limited by the authorities.

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