In a video, during the lockdown in Wuhan, she filmed a hospital corridor lined with roller beds, patients hooked up to blue oxygen tanks. In another, she looked at a community health center, noting that a man had said he had been charged with a coronavirus test, even though residents believed the tests would be free.
At the time, Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer turned citizen journalist, embodied the Chinese people’s thirst for unfiltered information about the epidemic. Now, she has become a symbol of the government’s efforts to deny its early failures in the crisis and promote a victorious narrative instead.
Ms. Zhang abruptly stopped posting in May, after several months of dispatches. Police later revealed that she had been arrested on charges of spreading lies. On Monday, she will go to court, in the first known trial of a chronicler of the coronavirus crisis in China.
Ms. Zhang continued to challenge the prison authorities. Shortly after her arrest, Ms. Zhang went on a hunger strike, according to her lawyers. She became gaunt and exhausted but refused to eat, lawyers said, saying her strike was her form of protest against her unjust detention.
“She said she refused to participate in the trial. She says it’s an insult, ”said Ren Quanniu, one of the lawyers, after visiting Ms. Zhang in mid-December in Shanghai, where she is being held.
Ms. Zhang’s lawsuit is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s continued campaign to recast China’s handling of the epidemic into a succession of wise and triumphant government moves. Critics who pointed out the officials’ first missteps have been arrested, censored or threatened by police; three other citizen journalists disappeared from Wuhan before Ms. Zhang, although none of the others have been publicly accused.
Prosecutors charged Ms. Zhang with “quarreling and causing trouble” – a frequent charge for government critics – and recommended between four and five years in prison.
“She was shocked,” Mr. Ren said. “She didn’t think it would be so heavy.
Ms. Zhang was among a wave of journalists, professionals and amateurs who flocked to Wuhan after the lockdown was imposed in late January. Authorities were concerned about trying to deal with the chaos of the epidemic, and for a brief period China’s strict censorship regime eased. Reporters took to this window to share residents’ raw tales of terror and fury.
During her first few weeks, Ms. Zhang visited a crematorium, a crowded hospital corridor, and the city’s deserted train station. On March 7, when the top Communist Party official from Wuhan said residents should suffer “gratitude educationTo thank the government for its anti-epidemic efforts, Ms. Zhang walked the streets, asking passers-by if they felt grateful.
“Is gratitude something you can teach? If you can, it must be false gratitude, ”she then said on camera. “We are adults. We don’t need to be taught.
Ms. Zhang’s videos were often choppy and unedited, sometimes lasting only a few seconds. They frequently showed the challenges of independent reporting in China under the Party’s increasingly tight grip. Many residents ignored Ms. Zhang or told her to leave. If they spoke, they would ask him to point the camera at their feet.
Although she posted videos and essays on WeChat, a popular messaging service in China, she said she often encounters censorship on the platform. She relied heavily on YouTube and Twitter, which are blocked in China but can be accessed through virtual private networks.
Ms. Zhang had never been a citizen journalist before traveling to Wuhan from Shanghai, where she lived, said Li Dawei, a friend who often exchanged messages with her while reporting. But she was stubborn and idealistic, he said, to a point that was sometimes hard to understand.
Ms. Zhang seemed to know the risks of her actions. In one of her first videos on February 7, she mentioned that another citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, had just disappeared and that another, Fang Bin, was under surveillance. The whistleblowers have been silenced, she added.
“But as a truth-minded person in this country, we must say that if we indulge in our sadness and do nothing to change this reality, then our emotions are cheap,” Ms. Zhang said.
Soon after, Mr. Fang disappeared. The same was true for Li Zehua, another citizen journalist who had visited Wuhan. Chinese leader Xi Jinping recently ordered officials to “strengthen the direction of public opinion” and hundreds of state media journalists were deployed in the city.
The crackdown also extended to those who had tried to document the crisis less directly. In April, three volunteers who had created an online archive of censored articles on the epidemic has disappeared; two were later charged with provoking quarrels and causing unrest, although their trials have not started, according to family members.
Despite the scrutiny, Ms. Zhang continued to move around Wuhan for several weeks, potentially in part because she had not attracted a large audience. Some of his videos have only been viewed a few hundred times on YouTube.
Her friend Mr. Li warned that the authorities would eventually lose patience, especially as Ms. Zhang became more and more daring. At one point, she went to police stations to inquire about missing citizen journalists.
“She believed me, but she still didn’t want to stop,” Mr. Li recalls. “She said, ‘I didn’t finish my work in Wuhan.’”
In mid-May, Ms. Zhang suddenly stopped responding, Mr. Li said. He later learned that she had been arrested and taken to Shanghai. The indictment, reviewed by the New York Times, charged Ms. Zhang with “lying and spreading false information.” She also noted that she had given interviews to “foreign media” such as Radio Free Asia and The Epoch Times.
Ms. Zhang began to refuse food soon after her arrest, according to her lawyers. When one of them, Zhang Ke Ke, visited him in prison earlier this month, he saw that his hands had been tied with restraints, according to an article on his WeChat account. Ms. Zhang explained that the guards periodically inserted a feeding tube and tied her hands so that she could not remove it, Mr. Zhang wrote. (The two Zhangs are not related.)
Ms. Zhang said that she had dizziness and an upset stomach, Mr. Zhang continued. A Christian, she wished she had a Bible and quoted to her from I Corinthians: “God is faithful, who will not let you try above what you can.”
Mr. Zhang and Mr. Ren, who visited separately later, begged Ms. Zhang to eat. But she refused, Mr. Ren said.
“She is much paler than in her videos and photos – deadly pale,” Mr. Ren said, adding that Ms. Zhang appeared to have aged decades. “It’s really hard to believe she’s the same person you’ve seen online.”
The Chinese judicial system is notoriously opaque, with sensitive cases often being heard behind closed doors. In 2019, the conviction rate of Chinese courts was 99.9 percent, according to government statistics. Ms. Zhang’s attorneys recently requested that Ms. Zhang’s trial be broadcast live, to ensure transparency, but they have not received a response, Mr. Ren said.
Among the other citizen journalists who disappeared, only one, Mr. Li, has appeared publicly. In a YouTube video in April, he said he was forcibly quarantined but not charged. Another, Mr. Chen, is would have with his family but did not speak publicly; friends say he’s under surveillance. There was no news from Mr. Fang.
In her penultimate video Prior to her own arrest, Ms. Zhang walked on a street in a neighborhood where cases had recently been reported. While filming the shuttered shops, a man in a neon waistcoat emblazoned with the words “on duty” confronted her, asking where she lived and if she was a journalist. When Ms. Zhang pushed him away, he shouted, “If you post this online, you have to take responsibility.”
“I take responsibility for all my actions,” Ms. Zhang yelled. “You must also take responsibility for your actions as a law enforcement officer.”