A Christian reporter who saw her work as God’s will has been sentenced to four years in prison in Shanghai after she documented the coronavirus outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Zhang Zhan, 37, was found guilty by Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court on Monday morning of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” the South China Morning Post reports. The sentence is often used to silence dissidents.
“Zhang Zhan attended the trial in a wheelchair and was in poor health,” lawyer Zhang Keke said. “She did not immediately say if she would appeal [against the sentence].”
At the height of China’s outbreak in February, the 37-year-old citizen journalist and former lawyer had traveled from Shanghai to Wuhan to witness the severity of the virus firsthand, Reuters reports. For several months she shared widely-circulated videos that showed crowded hospitals, empty streets, and citizens worried about their finances.
In her reporting, Zhang was critical of the government, accusing the Chinese Communist Party of silencing whistleblowers about the virus and warning Wuhan’s lockdown had been enacted too harshly.
In her final video, Zhang stated, “The government’s way of managing this city has just been intimidation and threats. This is truly the tragedy of this country.”
Following that video in May, Zhang stopped responding to messages, and her friends later learned that she had been arrested and brought back to Shanghai, accused of spreading lies and making up false information.
She went on a hunger strike in late June, and by December was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection, according to Reuters.
Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube. Requests to the court to release Zhang on bail before the trial and livestream the trial were ignored, her lawyer said.
Ahead of her detention, she had been trying to campaign for the grieving relatives of virus victims, who were seeking compensation. A devout Christian, Zhang reportedly saw her work as obedience to God’s calling.
"I warned her about going to Wuhan when everyone else was trying to leave," said her friend and fellow lawyer, Li Dawei.
"She is a staunch Christian and said it was God's will — she had to do this and tell everyone the truth."
When one of her lawyers visited her in jail, she reportedly said 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.”
Zhang was the first of the citizen journalists known to face legal proceedings for her activities. Other citizen journalists who disappeared without explanation included Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua.
Chen Jiangang, a Chinese human rights lawyer, told The New York Times that the length of Zhang’s sentence showed the CCP’s commitment to preserving its narrative of the outbreak.
“Any time the Chinese Communist Party thinks of a case as political, what they use is suppression. Extremely cruel suppression,” said Chen.
“What was Zhang Zhan’s crime?” he continued. “She just went to Wuhan, saw some things, talked about them. That’s it.”
Leo Lan, a research and advocacy consultant at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told The Washington Post the verdict “shows that we will never know the truth about the pandemic.”
“Zhang Zhan’s heavy sentence will have a deterrent effect of silencing others who witnessed what happened in Wuhan earlier this year,” he said.