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A citizen journalist who shined a light on the pandemic in Wuhan may die in prison

Pro-democracy activists (right) hold placards with the picture of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan as they march to the Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong in Dec. 2020.
Pro-democracy activists (right) hold placards with the picture of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan as they march to the Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong in Dec. 2020.

BEIJING — A lawyer-turned-citizen-journalist in China who posted videos on social media from Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic is on the verge of dying in prison after staging a months-long hunger strike, according to her family and her lawyer.

Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer and blogger, was arrested in May 2020 and sentenced to four years prison that December for filming videos from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus was first discovered in humans.

"She's so stubborn, [she will not eat] and she may not survive for much longer," Zhang Ju, her brother, recently wrote on Twitter after their mother was able to visit the prison Zhang Zhan is being held in and talk her by video.

"If she does not make it past the coming winter, I hope the world will remember her as she once was," he added.

He wrote that Zhang — who stands about 5-foot-10 — weighs less than 88 pounds, after beginning an intermittent hunger strike since she was detained last year.

"Zhang believes she is fundamentally innocent, that her detention, arrest and conviction were wrong, and that the only way she can protest is to refuse to eat," says Zhang Keke, one of her lawyers. (The two are not related despite having the same surname.)

The attorney says authorities have refused him access to his client, but he hopes that she can be persuaded to eat, or be set free on medical parole. Zhang Zhan's mother was able to talk to her daughter by video link in late October, but her brother has not been able to talk to her because authorities refuse to acknowledge they are related, according to her lawyer.

Zhang Zhan was originally trained as a lawyer, and became more involved in human rights and political activism after 2013, the year she converted to Christianity, according to her brother.

She traveled to Wuhan in early 2020, soon after initial reports about a mysterious new virus began circulating domestically. Her videos from that trip – ultimately more than 120 in total – documented a darker side of the government's lockdown and bungled initial efforts to deal with the outbreak. She was soon detained for "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," a broad criminal charge.

"The entire prosecution is a sham. It's a catch-all crime that the government often uses against critics of the government," said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The U.S. government has intensified calls for China's Communist Party to release Zhang Zhan. This week, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. was concerned about Zhang's well-being.

"We reiterate our call to the PRC for her immediate and unconditional release," he said, "and for Beijing to respect a free press and the right of people to express themselves freely."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.