Zhang Zhan, a Shanghai-based activist and former lawyer, should not have been imprisoned on her 40th birthday or any other day. In February 2020, Zhang traveled to Wuhan, the city where Covid-19 first emerged, to document the outbreak. Over several months, she posted videos on YouTube that revealed the extent of the lockdown. In May, authorities detained her and brought her back to Shanghai. In December, Zhang was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and sentenced to four years in prison.
Despite believing that her conviction was unjust, Zhang did not appeal and instead embarked on periodic hunger strikes as a form of protest. She has informed her lawyer that authorities forcibly inserted gastric tubes to force-feed her, resulting in her experiencing torture on a daily basis. This practice of force-feeding prisoners who are voluntarily engaging in a hunger strike violates the Convention against Torture, an agreement that China is a party to.
According to the Rights Defense Network, Zhang’s weight has now dropped by half, and she was transferred to a prison hospital in July 2023. Furthermore, she has been denied family visits, which constitutes a violation of international law. Although Zhang is scheduled to be released in May 2024, there are concerns about her deteriorating health and the possibility of authorities extending her detention.
Chinese authorities have shown no tolerance for questioning their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. In late 2022, peaceful protesters who were demonstrating against strict “zero-Covid” policies faced harassment and detention, with some now facing the same charges as Zhang.
Not only has the Chinese government rejected calls for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, but they are also censoring crucial medical and scientific information. In February 2023, the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee labeled the government’s response to Covid-19 as a “miracle.” However, this rhetoric sharply contrasts with the government’s silencing of individuals sharing information about the virus, the unfounded prosecutions of those exercising their right to free speech, and the inadequate medical care provided to prisoners. If Beijing genuinely wants to demonstrate its commitment to addressing public health crises, it should release Zhang Zhan immediately and respect the rights of those who speak out on public health issues.