“We should seek the truth and seek it at all costs. Truth has always been the most expensive thing in the world. It is our life.”
These are the words of the brave Chinese citizen journalist and former lawyer Zhang Zhan. For her, seeking the truth meant travelling to China’s Wuhan in February 2020, right at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. There, she published videos and articles reporting on the crisis to both Twitter and YouTube, both of which are blocked in China.
Zhang’s reporting, and particularly her questioning of whether the Chinese authorities’ response to the pandemic had infringed on human rights unsurprisingly provoked the ire of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On 14 May 2020, a year ago today, she was seized by Shanghai police in her hotel room in Wuhan and taken to a detention centre in Shanghai.
She subsequently spent seven months in detention, during which time concerns were repeatedly raised over her health and wellbeing – particularly as she remained on hunger strike in protest of her treatment.
On 28 December, in a trial that lasted just over two hours, Zhang received a four-year prison sentence on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a charge commonly levelled at activists. She has remained imprisoned ever since, and the lawyers who have worked on her case have also reported facing harassment and pressure from the authorities, including one lawyer who was disbarred. Reports also indicate that Zhang is still on partial hunger strike.
It is no great surprise that Zhang’s courageous mantra to seek the truth at all costs prompted such a harsh response from the CCP. Under Xi Jinping, the Party has overseen a rapid and significant deterioration in the situation of human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), which has been accompanied by a severe crackdown on those seeking to defend them.
The CCP remains wholly antithetical to the truth, repeatedly denying its egregious human rights violations on the international stage, as well as attempting to silence those who suggest otherwise.
Zhang is not the only journalist who has been imprisoned in connection to her reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Several other citizen journalists were reportedly disappeared before her, including Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua.
Other journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders also remain imprisoned, or with their whereabouts completely unknown. This is the case for Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer who was first detained by the Chinese authorities in 2006. After serving multiple prison sentences and being disappeared and detained on several occasions, he last disappeared on 13 August 2017.
Gao, who is notable for frequently taking on human rights cases, and was known for defending religious minorities, has remained missing ever since. He is believed to be in some form of detention.
“I know in my heart that, for this country to have peace and freedom, dedication, selfless sacrifices and physical suffering are necessary. I cannot do it, but I am going to try my best.”Zhang Zhan
As Zhang Zhan marks her first year in prison, the international community owes it to her to draw inspiration from her bravery and her own commitment to the truth to similarly stand up for truth, justice and democracy in China. The United Nations and others must hold the CCP to account for its egregious violations of human rights, including those taking place in Hong Kong, Tibet, the Uyghur region, and elsewhere across the country.
Like Zhang, we must seek the truth at all costs, we must remain unbowed in the pursuit of justice, and we must commit to calling for her immediate and unconditional release and that of others like her. #FreeZhangZhan
“I hope that I can make a little breakthrough. Too many people are unwilling to speak and stand up for justice because of fear.”Zhang Zhan
By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley