Citizen Journalist Punished for Criticizing China

A 37-year-old Chinese citizen journalist named Zhang Zhan has just been sentenced to four years in prison for reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China, and the Chinese government’s response to it.

In particular, Zhan took pains to report on the substandard and often unsanitary and understaffed conditions in Wuhan hospitals during the pandemic. More generally, she reported on how severely the entire city had been devastated by the virus, contradicting the Chinese government’s claims that things were under control.

Zhan had been unsparingly critical of the government’s heavy-handed response, accusing officials of intimidating and threatening the people of Wuhan. In the early months of the pandemic, many videos had surfaced on the internet that corroborated this general picture, showing officials setting up checkpoints, locking people in their homes, and arresting and carrying off those who were sick.

To construct her reports, Zhan has interviewed many locals from Wuhan and has secured images of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from which it is alleged—including by virologists like Dr. Li-Meng Yan—that the virus may have originally emerged.

In response, the Chinese government has accused Zhan of seditious behavior and of “picking quarrels” with government authorities. Even prior to her arrest and conviction, Zhan had been barred from posting her material to social media—a victim of China’s infamous Social Credit System.

Chinese Government Denies All Wrongdoing

In contrast to Zhan and other citizen journalists, the Chinese government insists that their handling of the pandemic was exemplary and that it never concealed any important information about it from either its own citizens or the rest of the world. China’s National Health Commission Chairman stated, “The Chinese government did not delay or cover up anything. Instead, we have immediately reported virus data and relevant information about the epidemic to the international community and made an important contribution to the prevention and control of the epidemic around the world.”

Signs of Corruption Involving China and WHO

This totally contradicts all known indications concerning the Chinese government’s interactions with the World Health Organization. As the largest funder of WHO, the Chinese government is certainly in a position to dictate its behavior, and it is widely believed that this is precisely what the Chinese government had done in the early days of the pandemic.

On December 31, 2019, both China and Taiwan notified WHO that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus, but WHO did not officially admit this until February of 2020. In the meantime, the Chinese government had been going after whistleblowers like Zhan, preventing papers from being published in scientific journals that would have reflected poorly on its handling of the pandemic and generally being tight-lipped about what was really going on. All the while, WHO praised China for its transparency.

Zhan’s lawyers say that they will attempt to appeal her conviction on free speech grounds, but as free speech rights in China exist in name only, this action is unlikely to succeed.