She Chronicled China’s Crisis. Now She Is Accused of Spreading Lies

In one video, through the lockdown in Wuhan, she filmed a hospital hallway lined with rolling beds, the sufferers hooked as much as blue oxygen tanks. In one other, she panned over a neighborhood well being middle, noting {that a} man stated he was charged for a coronavirus take a look at, regardless that residents believed the assessments can be free.

At the time, Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer turned citizen journalist, embodied the Chinese folks’s starvation for unfiltered details about the epidemic. Now, she has develop into an emblem of the federal government’s efforts to disclaim its early failings within the disaster and promote a victorious narrative as a substitute.

Ms. Zhang abruptly stopped posting in May, after a number of months of dispatches. The police later revealed that she had been arrested, accused of spreading lies. On Monday, she’s going to go to courtroom, within the first identified trial of a chronicler of China’s coronavirus disaster.

Ms. Zhang has continued to problem the authorities from jail. Soon after her arrest, Ms. Zhang started a starvation strike, in keeping with her attorneys. She has develop into gaunt and drained however has refused to eat, the attorneys stated, sustaining that her strike is her type of protest in opposition to her unjust detention.

“She said she refuses to participate in the trial. She says it’s an insult,” Ren Quanniu, one of many attorneys, stated after visiting Ms. Zhang in mid-December in Shanghai, the place she is being held.

Ms. Zhang’s prosecution is a part of the Chinese Communist Party’s persevering with marketing campaign to recast China’s dealing with of the outbreak as a succession of sensible, triumphant strikes by the federal government. Critics who’ve pointed to officers’ early missteps have been arrested, censored or threatened by police; three different citizen journalists disappeared from Wuhan earlier than Ms. Zhang did, although not one of the relaxation has been publicly charged.

Prosecutors accused Ms. Zhang of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — a frequent cost for presidency critics — and really helpful between 4 and 5 years in jail.

“She was shocked,” Mr. Ren stated. “She didn’t think it would be that heavy.”

Ms. Zhang was amongst of a wave of journalists, professionals and amateurs who flocked to Wuhan after the lockdown was imposed in late January. The authorities had been preoccupied with making an attempt to handle the chaos of the outbreak, and for a short interval, China’s strict censorship regime loosened. Reporters seized that window to share residents’ uncooked accounts of terror and fury.

In her first weeks, Ms. Zhang visited a crematory, a crowded hospital hallway and town’s abandoned prepare station. On March 7, when Wuhan’s prime Communist Party official stated residents ought to endure “gratitude education” to thank the federal government for its anti-epidemic efforts, Ms. Zhang walked via the streets, asking passers-by in the event that they felt grateful.

“Is gratitude something you can teach? If you can, it must be a fake gratitude,” she stated into the digicam afterward. “We’re adults. We don’t need to be taught.”

Ms. Zhang’s movies had been typically shaky and unedited, generally lasting just some seconds. They regularly confirmed the challenges of unbiased reporting in China beneath the Party’s tightening grip. Many residents ignored Ms. Zhang or informed her to go away. If they did discuss, they requested her to level the digicam at their toes.

While she posted some movies and essays to WeChat, a well-liked messaging service in China, she stated she typically encountered censorship on the platform. She largely relied on YouTube and Twitter, that are blocked in China however may be accessed via digital personal networks.

Ms. Zhang had by no means been a citizen journalist earlier than touring to Wuhan from Shanghai, the place she lived, stated Li Dawei, a buddy who exchanged messages along with her typically whereas she was reporting. But she was cussed and idealistic, he stated, to some extent that was generally obscure.

Ms. Zhang appeared to know the dangers of her actions. In one in every of her first movies, on Feb. 7, she talked about that one other citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, had simply disappeared, and one other, Fang Bin, was beneath surveillance. Whistleblower docs had been silenced, she added.

“But as someone who cares about the truth in this country, we have to say that if we just wallow in our sadness and don’t do something to change this reality, then our emotions are cheap,” Ms. Zhang stated.

Not lengthy afterward, Mr. Fang disappeared. So did Li Zehua, one other citizen journalist who had traveled to Wuhan. China’s chief, Xi Jinping, had not too long ago ordered officers to “strengthen the guidance of public opinion,” and a whole lot of journalists from state media had been deployed to town.

The crackdown additionally prolonged to individuals who had tried to doc the disaster in much less direct methods. In April, three volunteers who had created an internet archive of censored information articles in regards to the epidemic went lacking; two had been later charged with choosing quarrels and upsetting bother, although their trials haven’t begun, in keeping with relations.

Credit…Chen Qiushi, through Associated Press

Despite the scrutiny, Ms. Zhang continued shifting round Wuhan for a number of weeks, probably partially as a result of she had not attracted a big following. Some of her movies had been considered only some hundred instances on YouTube.

Her buddy, Mr. Li, warned that the authorities would lose persistence ultimately, particularly as Ms. Zhang grew more and more daring. At one level, she went to police stations to inquire after the lacking citizen journalists.

“She believed me, but she still just wouldn’t stop,” Mr. Li recalled. “She said, ‘I haven’t finished my work in Wuhan.’”

In mid-May, Ms. Zhang instantly stopped responding, Mr. Li stated. He later realized that she had been arrested and delivered to Shanghai. The indictment, reviewed by The New York Times, accused Ms. Zhang of “making up lies and spreading false information.” It additionally famous that she had given interviews to “foreign media” equivalent to Radio Free Asia and the Epoch Times.

Ms. Zhang started refusing meals not lengthy after her arrest, in keeping with her attorneys. When one in every of them, Zhang Ke Ke, visited her in jail earlier this month, he noticed that her arms had been tied with restraints, in keeping with a publish on his WeChat account. Ms. Zhang defined that the guards periodically inserted a feeding tube and had sure her arms so she couldn’t pull it out, Mr. Zhang wrote. (The two Zhangs should not associated.)

Ms. Zhang stated she felt dizzy and had stomachaches, Mr. Zhang continued. A Christian, she wished she had a Bible and quoted to him from I Corinthians: “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able.”

Both Mr. Zhang and Mr. Ren, who visited individually later, pleaded with Ms. Zhang to eat. But she refused, Mr. Ren stated.

“She’s much paler than in her videos and photos — deathly pale,” Mr. Ren stated, including that Ms. Zhang appeared to have aged a number of a long time. “It’s really hard to believe that she’s the same person as you saw online.”

China’s courtroom system is notoriously opaque, with delicate instances typically heard behind closed doorways. In 2019, the conviction charge for Chinese courts was 99.9 %, in keeping with authorities statistics. Ms. Zhang’s attorneys not too long ago petitioned for Ms. Zhang’s trial to be live-streamed, to make sure transparency, however they haven’t heard again, Mr. Ren stated.

Of the opposite citizen journalists who disappeared, only one, Mr. Li, has publicly emerged. In a YouTube video in April, he stated he had been forcibly quarantined however not charged. Another, Mr. Chen, is reportedly with household however has not spoken publicly; pals say he’s beneath surveillance. There has been no information of Mr. Fang.

In her second-to-last video earlier than her personal arrest, Ms. Zhang walked down a road in a neighborhood the place instances had not too long ago been reported. As she filmed the shuttered outlets, a person in a neon vest emblazoned with the phrases “on duty” confronted her, asking her the place she lived and whether or not she was a journalist. When Ms. Zhang rebuffed him, he yelled, “If you post this online, you’ll have to take responsibility.”

“I take responsibility for all my actions,” Ms. Zhang yelled again. “You have to take responsibility for your actions as law enforcement, too.”