Christmas in China’s prison cells: Remembering Zhang Zhan and others over the festive period

I love Christmas. I especially love the fact that it comes right in the middle of the darkest part of the year here in the UK. Just when I’ve had about enough of the cold, dark, rainy British wintertime, everything is brightened up by Christmas decorations in my neighbours’ windows, trees along our street festooned with lights, and plans for good times ahead with family and friends. 2020 is sure to be a Christmas like no other, including in the UK, but there are still things we can do to remind us of the festive spirit.

Just last week I received a lovely Christmas card with a heartfelt message. It came at just the right time, as I’d been thinking about friends and activists in China. This always makes me sad, not only because it’s impossible to visit the country right now, but more because so many of them – being Christian leaders, human rights lawyers or citizen journalists – will be spending Christmas and New Year in prison cells far away from their loved ones. Contemplating their situation, and the Chinese government’s crackdown on Christians, it seemed ironic to me that the card I held in my hands was ‘made in China’.

Zhang Zhan. Credit: Twitter/@consultorzhang

Take for example Zhang Zhan, a Christian citizen journalist and human rights defender. Zhang was one of the brave few who attempted to report the truth in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A source, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, told CSW: “In early February, when everyone in Wuhan tried to flee out [sic], human rights defender Zhang Zhan travelled the opposite direction towards Wuhan to report on the crisis. Her videos and articles were posted on Twitter and YouTube, both of which are blocked in China, and other social media platforms. She questioned whether the authorities’ response to the epidemic infringed on human rights. She spoke up for Dr Li Wenliang and questioned whether the severity of the outbreak had been covered up. She was deeply concerned about those ordinary, voiceless Wuhan citizens who face destitution, having lost livelihoods in COVID-19.”

Her courage is striking – braving not only the risk posed by the virus, but also the threat of arrest. Yet, instead of rewarding her bravery, the authorities have tried to silence her. She was arrested in May and has been detained at the Pudong District Detention Centre in Shanghai ever since.

“This is not a crisis of pandemic, it is a crisis of power. Therefore, even if there is no crisis of pandemic, there will always be other crises until the conflict created by this power is resolved.”

Zhang Zhan

In October, CSW reported that Zhang had been on hunger strike in protest of her detention since the beginning of summer, with staff at the detention centre force-feeding her as she refused to eat or drink anything. Recent reports indicate that Zhang remains on hunger strike today as she continues to insist upon her innocence, and there are serious fears for health and wellbeing.

Zhang is not alone: at least three other citizen journalists have been detained or disappeared for trying to report independently about the virus.

Christians too are under enormous pressure. This year, Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church will mark his third Christmas behind bars. Across the country, unregistered churches continue to face harassment and forced closure, with their pastors often detained; while registered churches have been forced to edit their messages, remove crosses, and cancel all activities for under-18s, among other violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

“I want Christians to push for peaceful reformation or change in the politics of this country, to make a little breakthrough. Too many people make wrong choices out of fear, such as not speaking up in the face of injustice.”

Zhang Zhan

Muslim leaders, scholars and publishers have been arrested too. In some areas, mosques, temples and churches have been stripped of religious architecture and symbols. Those who resist are often arrested; those who speak up for them – including their lawyers – are themselves detained. I hardly need mention the alarming realities in the Uyghur Region, Tibet and Hong Kong.

The picture is bleak, but one thing remains true: the best and the bravest of Chinese civil society are not giving up. Christians are not giving up meeting together, even if that takes a different form. Nor are they giving up doing good in their communities. Human rights lawyers are not giving up, even when it means harassment, threats, arrest, and imprisonment. Outside China’s borders, the sons and daughters, mothers and fathers of Uyghurs in the camps are not giving up asking over and over again why and where their family members are being held.

“If all that is left in life is fear, then all I can do is to fight fear again and again until I get over it.”

Zhang Zhan

Their courage is a light in the darkness, a warm glow in the depth of winter. As long as they keep going, we should keep supporting them any way we can, as we all hope and pray for a new season in China.

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    to break the chains of injustice,
    get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
    free the oppressed,
    cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
    inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
    putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
    being available to your own families.
…Then when you pray, God will answer.
    You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

Isaiah 58:6-9. Message version.

By CSW’s Deputy Team Leader for East Asia