On China’s “Journalists’ Day,” Renewed Calls to Free Jailed Journalists Zhang Zhan, Huang Xueqin and Labor Activist Wang Jianbing

On November 8, an unofficial holiday celebrating journalists in China, there were renewed calls to release a number of Chinese journalists who have been detained, arrested or imprisoned simply for doing their jobs. China is currently ranked 177th out of 180 countries in the 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index, with over 120 journalists detained or imprisoned.

The U.S. State Department on Monday urged the Chinese government to release Zhang Zhan and expressed “serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of her detention and her mistreatment during it.” An imprisoned citizen journalist whose reports from Wuhan were critical to understanding the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zhang Zhan is close to death after a lengthy hunger strike, according to her family. She arrived in Wuhan in February 2020 to document life in the megacity shortly after the unprecedented initial lockdown, but three months later, she was detained and later arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a catch-all offense often used by the Chinese authorities against activists.

Since her formal arrest over a year and a half ago, Zhang has carried out periodic hunger strikes to protest the lack of due process in her trial. According to her lawyer, the authorities at one point had been restraining and force-feeding her, a treatment that Amnesty International says “amounts to torture.”

During a three-hour trial in December 2020, Zhang was sentenced to four years in prison. She appeared in court in a wheelchair, looking extremely frail. Her family and friends have been speaking up on her behalf during her imprisonment. Zhang Zhan’s older brother Zhang Ju has urged the authorities to release his sister on medical parole due to her extreme emaciation and deteriorating health:

Ju Zhang (@Jeffreychang81): Zhang Zhan stands at 177 cm [5 ft 8 in] tall. She now weighs less than 40 kilograms [88 lbs]. I suspect that she might not have much time left. If she fails to survive the upcoming winter, I hope the world can remember what she used to be like. [Chinese]

Ju Zhang (@Jeffreychang81): This is my sister Zhang Zhan dancing on the bed and performing for our family when she was 6 or 7 years old. The photo, taken more than 30 years ago, has yellowed. She was always smiling and cuddly, and had no quarrel with anyone. At some point, her edges grew sharper, her ideals more resilient. I have yet to meet anyone who is purer or more tenacious than her. [Chinese]

Ju Zhang (@Jeffreychang81): Save Zhang Zhan: grant her medical parole! [Chinese]

Scholar and writer Li Xuewen, a friend of Zhang Zhan, shared in an essay posted online early this month that he worried Zhang might become “another [Liu] Xiaobo,” the famed human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who died of liver cancer in 2017, after repeatedly being denied medical treatment or medical parole. Li, who is from Wuhan, hosted Zhang in his apartment when she first arrived in the city during the pandemic. His essay has been republished by CDT Chinese, and is partially translated here:

Perhaps I was propelled by a sense of guilt when I agreed to let her stay in my apartment: I ran away when the situation [in Wuhan] was dire, a time when Zhang Zhan, an outsider, chose to come.

[…] I returned to Wuhan in late April. Knowing that she was still here, I invited her to a meal, a rare gesture on my part. I lost my job before the pandemic and had been struggling to make ends meet. But I admired her and felt that I owed her something. My old friend Wei Xiaobing happened to be visiting on that day, and we found a restaurant serving Hubei cuisine in Hankou District. Zhang Zhan hurried over from Wuchang District to join us.

Although we had never met before, it felt like we were old friends. True to her southern origins, Zhang Zhan was tall and slender. She had a round face and glasses, dressed casually, and spoke softly. We ordered some Hubei dishes, and Zhang Zhan seemed to enjoy the meal. She said it was the best meal she’d had since arriving in Wuhan a few months ago. I was a bit sad to hear that, because the restaurant was mediocre at best. I asked what she’d been eating and where she had been staying [since leaving my apartment]. She said offhandedly that she was staying at a small hotel and living on instant noodles. It seemed as if she cared nothing about her material well-being. Her only concern was what else she could be doing to help. She admitted that she sometimes felt exhausted and bewildered. I was surprised that someone with a master’s degree in finance from Shanghai could be so detached from the material world. She is a very pure person who is completely immersed in her own pursuits. Among the many activists I know, very few are as pure as her. 

[…] A few days later, [writer Murong] Xuecun, who was conducting interviews in Wuhan, wanted to meet up with some local colleagues, so I invited friends over. Zhang Zhan joined us. She didn’t talk much, but listened to a local doctor share his firsthand, frontline experience of the pandemic. I took a walk with her after the gathering, and we talked about how people’s mentality had changed since the lockdown. Zhang Zhan said, “Even if there are very few people like us, we have to carry on.” [Chinese]

Documentary filmmaker and scholar Ai Xiaoming wrote about Zhang Zhan ahead of her trial last year:

I’ve read Zhang Zhan’s writing, and I keep thinking about her predicament. If Zhang Zhan has done anything wrong, all I can say is that she was born in the wrong era. She is not a person of the present, she is a person of the futureshe lives as the Chinese people ought to live: laughing in delight and cursing with rage, daring to love and daring to hate. From the fragments of her writing I have read through the long course of the pandemic, I already know that she is more heroic than Fang Fang: more ruthless, more incisive, more reckless. You know those truth-telling children Hans Christian Andersen created? Zhang Zhan is that kind of child. She is so pure that she cannot tolerate impurity in her own soul, nor can she allow herself to shrink back from the barriers of reality. Her abiding purity and sincerity is not a quality shared by the Chinese people of the present. She really should not have been born in the 1980s. She should have been born 40 or 50 years from now, at the earliest. 

It seems as if the pandemic is over in Wuhan, but for many families, that page has not yet been turned. When the time comes to settle accounts, how many people, how many institutions, will bear responsibility? The eight whistleblowers who were censured and punished, the “rumormongers” who were punished and denounced on national television, the beloved doctor mourned by the masses, the helpless cries and animal wails, the emotional collapse and heartbreak at loved ones’ deaths… must that heavy burden fall on the shoulders of one ordinary citizen named Zhang Zhan? 

[…] She sticks like a splinter: isolated, miniscule, and weak, yet unassailable. If you sentence her to ten years—never mind four or five—she will not change; she is beyond considerations of life and death. You, wielding the club of the law, now face your contemporary, perhaps even your generational and professional peer (for Zhang Zhan is a lawyer.) Of course, you can find some legal clause or statute with which to condemn a fellow lawyer, peer and citizen. But if you have any sense at all, if you stop and examine your conscience, then you will see that Zhang Zhan’s only crime is that she was born 30 years too early. Or, to put it another way for you judges, her crime is that she loves China and loves life more than you do. [Chinese]

Zhang’s journalism in Wuhan won her international recognition, and she was recently nominated for a ​​Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom award for courage. In mid-September, RSF (Reporters Without Borders) and 44 other NGOs released an open letter to Xi Jinping calling for Zhang’s exoneration and release from prison. Before her arrest and imprisonment, Zhang Zhan was known among colleagues and friends for her activism and incisive writing; since her imprisonment, some of her earlier essays have resurfaced and been shared online. In one undated essay republished by CDT Chinese, Zhang wrote that she believed the demise of the Chinese Communist Party was only a matter of time:

I believe that the CCP will come to an end.

It’s not being driven by the will of the people, but by the current economic downturn. Without tackling the fundamentally unequal allocation [of resources] brought about by the monopolistic public ownership of land, no solution is possible.

The question is not whether the CCP will fall or not, but when that is going to happen and at what cost.

What pains me is that we won’t know who’s swimming naked until the tide recedes. Everyone thinks that they are not the naked one.

No one dares to face reality. It’s as if we are ostriches: the deeper we bury our heads in the sand, the more sanguine we feel. Unfortunately, the hunter is right above us. [Chinese]

Journalists’ Day also marked the 50th day since the disappearance of journalist and prominent #MeToo activist Huang Xueqin (Sophia Huang) and labor activist Wang Jianbing, who were detained together in Guangzhou ahead of Huang’s planned trip to the UK, where she was due to begin postgraduate studies at the University of Sussex on a Chevening Scholarship. Last week, family members of the two activists received notices from the authorities stating that they were being charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” a charge that could result in a prison sentence of five or more years. In 2009, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the same crime.

Huang Xueqin is a longtime advocate for women’s rights. In 2017, she began surveying female journalists in China on their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace. Her report, published in March 2018, showed that 83.7% of female journalists had been subject to varying degrees of sexual harassment.

In 2019, after visiting Hong Kong to report on the massive public protests against the proposed extradition law, Huang Xueqin shared her experience in an essay published in Matters, and republished by CDT Chinese:

I had been updating my WeChat Moments incessantly with photos and videos I took at the protests. But no one “liked” my posts, because it turns out that my posts were being censored. I could only share cryptic sentences such as “One in seven Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest an evil law.” Many people DM-ed me on WeChat, asking: What happened in Hong Kong? What evil law? Why are they against it? In mainland China, people knew nothing about the news from Hong Kong. I replied to every DM, sending along photos and videos. Some people sent messages telling me to be careful or my account would be closed, or to stop sharing in case someone reported me. It’s true: ignorance and fear are learned, and can become a habit.

[…] Maybe it’s true that under the powerful machinery of the party-state, ignorance and fear can become learned behaviors, information and news can be blocked, and truth can be distorted. But as someone who has experienced and witnessed what happened firsthand, I cannot feign ignorance, nor can I stop documenting it and simply throw my hands up. In this boundless darkness, there is just one thread of truth, one ray of light, and I will certainly not surrender it without a fight. [Chinese]

The essay was believed to have prompted Huang Xueqin’s previous detention by Guangzhou police in October 2019. After being held in residential detention for approximately three months, she was eventually released on bail in January of 2020.

Huang Xueqin is widely regarded as a key figure in China’s #MeToo movement. She assisted Dr. Luo Xixi, an alumnus of prestigious Beihang University, in gathering evidence and drafting a public allegation of sexual harassment against Dr. Chen Xiaowu, Luo’s doctoral advisor. Posted on January 1, 2018, and widely shared on the Chinese internet, the petition made international headlines and kickstarted the #MeToo movement in China. Dr. Chen was fired by the university 10 days later.

After Huang Xueqin’s most recent detention in September 2021, U.S.-based professor and feminist historian Wang Zheng recalled Huang’s reporting and activism:

I later learned that journalist Huang Xueqin had worked closely with Luo Xixi on the rigorous investigation that led to the meticulously researched, irrefutable report that we all read. That huge news event was inextricable from the reporter who took part in it. Then, when I finally had the chance to meet her, I discovered that she is a journalist of rare brilliance, a quick thinker with a strong sense of justice and civic duty. She is an exemplary person in our society. I am deliberately calling Xueqin “exemplary” in order to differentiate her from the “elite,” a word distorted by its dependence on [power brokers] and the influence of money. 

Our society produces plenty of “elites,” but does not abide “exemplaries,” because the latter have the capacity to think for themselves and the impetus to act on their words. Every day, at the grassroots, whatever their social position, they work for the dignity and rights of unknown, powerless people, despite many obstacles and hardships. They usually go unrecognized. Because she is a journalist, someone with the power to speak out, Xueqin has been recognized by her journalistic peers. She earned China’s Prize for Outstanding Person in the Media in 2019 and 2020 for her outstanding investigative reporting; in 2021, she was awarded two international prizes: Amnesty International’s Human Rights Press Award, and the Society of Publishers in Asia Award for Editorial Excellence. Under normal circumstances, Xueqin would be known as an exceptional journalist “fighting for the glory of the nation.” [Chinese]

The serious nature of the charges against Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing appear to be connected to a larger ongoing crackdown against civil society. Various media outlets and NGOs have reported that Wang might have been targeted because of the private, peaceful gatherings with friends he often held at his residence.

Wang Jianbing, known as “Pancake” among friends [his given name “Jianbing” is a sound-alike for the Chinese word for a savory pancake], is a veteran labor activist and advocate for workers with disabilities and occupational diseases. Citizen journalist Lu Yuyu shared his memories of Wang Jianbing upon learning of the latter’s arrest:

Such a kind and considerate person, and they get him on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.” But if you think about it, it makes sense. In this country, if you do not lead your life according to their will, you have committed a crime. As for which crime, they can pick one out of a hat. 

The last time I saw Pancake was at the Zhengzhou train station. He was passing through the city to see me, and we only had an hour. We squatted in the square, talking about this and that. Pancake said, “People like us have no future and no hope. We don’t have a house, we don’t have a car. We don’t dare fall in love and get married, because we don’t want to drag a girl down with us.” Only then did I realize how hopeless he felt, this labor activist for victims of occupational diseases, this person who always puts others before himself. It’s just that he had kept that despair buried deep in his heart. He didn’t want to spread his own hopelessness. 

It’s true, we’re all hopeless. But we stubbornly keep on living this way. [Chinese]

With additional translation by Anne Henochowicz.

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