Gordon Chang: China will continue to 'disappear' citizen journalists like Zhang Zhan for COVID reporting

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The saga of a Chinese citizen who could die in prison for reporting on her authoritarian government’s failed coronavirus response shows China hasn’t succeeded completely in suppressing the truth, author Gordon Chang says.

But time might be running out for her and others.

Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison last year for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” the New York Times reported this week, following her reports on stringent Wuhan lockdowns and crowded hospitals, as well as her own fierce criticism of the Chinese cover-up of the virus outbreak. She is on a hunger strike and in failing health according to her lawyers, and she wouldn’t appeal her conviction because she viewed the process as a sham.

“We know a lot more about COVID-19 than the Chinese government wants us to because of citizen journalists like her,” Chang told Fox News. “We know a lot more about this disease because of some very brave individuals. And so I sort of think that the broader story here is that China has not been able to prevent its citizens from telling the truth.”

Zhang’s short videos of life in Wuhan under a stringent lockdown and her questioning of China’s storyline about the virus made her a target.

She and other citizen journalists have reported against China’s official narrative at risk of losing their freedom and worse, with some disappearing from view or winding up behing bars. There is no free press in China, which spreads propaganda around the country and the world through state-owned media organs. The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly deflected reports that it silenced whistleblowers in the critical early months of the pandemic and continues to furiously deny the theory that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

International observers have condemned China for jailing journalists like Zhang, Zhou Weilin, and dozens of others. Chang warned that it might not be long before no reports from renegades like Zhang come from inside of China.

“In a year or two after Xi Jinping thoroughly purges and shuts down China from the rest of the world, which is what he’s doing, we’ll never know, he said. “And citizen journalists, you know, there are several of them. They could just disappear them forever and we won’t know. So at least right now, China is sort of a little bit open so we can hear about these things. But eventually we won’t and China is going to become even more oppressive than it is today.”

Security personnel gather near the entrance of the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organization team in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

He also predicted China would keep Zhang alive by even force-feeding her if necessary since her name is now known internationally.

China ranks among the world’s worst in its treatment of journalists. The nonprofit watchdog Reporters Without Borders lists it 177th out of 180 in its freedom index.

“In 2021, China continues to be the world’s biggest jailer of press freedom defenders, with more than 115 currently detained, often in conditions that pose a threat to their lives,” RWB wrote about China. “Kunchok Jinpa, a leading media source of information about Tibet, died in February 2021 as a result of mistreatment in prison, just as Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace laureate and winner of the RSF Press Freedom Prize, and Yang Tongyan, a dissident blogger, did in 2017.” 

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