Zhang Zhan Finally Released From Prison, But Real Freedom Remains Uncertain

Citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan finally reappeared on Tuesday, over a week after she was scheduled to be released from prison. Zhang was among the first and most prominent individuals to report from the ground in Wuhan at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her critical reporting led to her arrest in May 2020 and a four-year prison sentence on the grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Many feared that the absence of any news of her whereabouts last week meant that she was subjected to “non-release release,” a form of nominal freedom and arbitrary detention following formal release from prison. On Tuesday, human rights activist Jane Wang posted a short video, later subtitled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), showing Zhang after her release:

Reporting on Zhang’s release, RSF stated that it “remains concerned by her situation and emphasises that partial freedom is not freedom at all. Diplomatic intervention remains crucial to ensure her full and unconditional release without delay.” Huizhong Wu from the Associated Press described how Zhang’s supporters who initially obtained the video believe that she is not fully free:

The video was posted by Jane Wang, an overseas activist who launched the Free Zhang Zhan campaign in the United Kingdom and is in contact with one of Zhang’s former lawyers. However, Wang said in a statement that Zhang still has limited freedom. They became concerned that Zhang would be kept under further control by police even if she was no longer in prison.

[…] Ren Quanniu represented Zhang before being stripped of his license in February 2021. He said he confirmed the video was true by speaking with Zhang’s family.

“She’s not free, she’s relatively free,” he said in a message to the AP. “She’s still under the watch and care of the police.” [Source]

After Zhang did not appear in the days after her scheduled release, the U.S. State Department released a statement expressing its “serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of her detention and authorities’ mistreatment of her” and called “for the PRC to respect the human rights of Ms. Zhang, including by immediately ending the restrictive measures that she and all journalists in the PRC face, which include surveillance, censorship, harassment, and intimidation.” The E.U.’s Foreign Affairs & Security Policy spokesperson stated that she was “deeply concerned about [Zhang’s] wellbeing” and urged the Chinese government to immediately confirm Zhang’s release. Liyan Qi and Clarence Leong from The Wall Street Journal described how pressure from the international community may have helped secure Zhang’s release, but underlined the restrictions that likely remain:

The fact that Zhang appears to have been given a phone, access to her WeChat account and was allowed, or even instructed, to talk to people outside her family suggests that Beijing has taken into account the pressure from the international community, said Jane Wang, a London-based human-rights activist.

“We are still worried about her health and freedom but at least it seems that she has recovered a little from her illness,” said Wang, who has been spearheading a campaign for Zhang’s release and has been active in an online effort to try to locate Zhang over the past few days, with many reposting the hashtag WhereisZhangZhan.

[…] Maya Wang, associate Asia director at the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, said she was relieved to see Zhang released, especially given her poor health in prison, but she continued to fear that, upon release, Zhang will remain under tight restrictions. 

“It is important that the world does not forget brave activists like Zhang, and demand that she be freed without restrictions,” Wang said. [Source]

After Zhang’s appearance this week, other commentators emphasized the importance of continued international pressure to secure Zhang’s full freedoms:

In prison, Zhang was reportedly tortured, carried out several hunger strikes, became hospitalized, and was reportedly restrained and forcibly fed, all of which contributed to a decline in her health. Outside of prison, as Nectar Gan reported, Zhang is expected to live under close surveillance from authorities:

“While Zhang is released from prison, it won’t mean she will be free,” said Yaqiu Wang, research director for China at advocacy group Freedom House.

“If the Chinese government’s past record is of any indication, she will face continued harassment and surveillance by authorities. But if Zhang Zhan’s past actions are any indication, she will keep fighting against efforts to silence her.”

Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s China director, said she was concerned that Zhang’s ability to travel or to make contact with relatives and others, especially those outside China, may be severely restricted.

“Zhang Zhan should never have been jailed in the first place; now, having served her time, our hopes are with her and her family for a safe reunion and road back to health and, if she chooses, her important human rights work,” she said.

“The Chinese government’s jailing of Zhang Zhan has been a shameful assault on her human rights, and her release must mark a new beginning.” [Source]

In addition, Kasim Kashgar from VOA described how Chinese authorities attempted to censor information about Zhang following her release:

According to Li Yong, a Wuhan citizen who shared the U.S. State Department’s statement on Zhang in a WeChat group, the Chinese State Security forces warned him not to share information about Zhang.

“The local community’s state security officer said, ‘These posts are no longer allowed. Be silent. Things involving Zhang Zhan are not allowed [to be shared].’ Anyway, I promised not to post it again,” Li told VOA.

According to Li, he befriended Zhang when she came to Wuhan in 2020.

“I advised her to take a step back [in her criticism of the government]. But she was a person of faith and was more persistent at that time,” Li said. [Source]

Other figures who reported on the pandemic from Wuhan have been detained and subsequently released. These include Li Zehua, Chen Qiushi, and Fang Bing. Female reporters have been particular targets of arbitrary detention, such as Huang Xueqin, Haze Fan, and Cheng Lei. As trial updates often offer little in the way of justice, freedom remains elusive for countless political prisoners in China. But many remain defiant. Upon his release, blogger and activist Wu Gan wrote a letter to his friend and stated: “Eight years in prison hasn’t frightened me; it has only made me stronger.”


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