By William Yang
Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan has offered glimpses of her life in prison in a letter that she recently sent to her family.
The letter comes more than two years after she was handed a 4-year prison sentence for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — a charge that’s commonly used against journalists and activists in China — after covering the lockdown in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in early 2020.
Dangerous virus, dangerous reporting
Zhang’s widely shared video livestreams and essays detailed overcrowded crematoriums and hospitals as Chinese authorities struggled to contain the virus.
Her reporting was critical of measures imposed by the government to stop the spread of the coronavirus. She claimed that Chinese authorities were being negligent.
The former Shanghai-based lawyer reported about “how government officials had detained independent reporters and harassed families of Covid-19 patients,” according to Amnesty International. The human rights organization has called for her immediate release.
Chinese human rights lawyer Li Dawei said Zhang’s mother hasn’t been able to meet her through video calls since having surgery to treat her cancer in September. She is able to keep in touch with Zhang only through phone calls or writing letters.
“She is only allowed to call Zhang once a month, which lasts between five to ten minutes,” Li told DW.
“Most of the time, Zhang will be the one talking on the phone. She will ask how her mom is doing while not mentioning much about her conditions in prison. Based on Zhang’s tone on the phone, her mother thinks Zhang sounds more optimistic than before, which may suggest her condition has improved,” Li said.
In the letter, which was shared on Twitter by her brother last month, Zhang asked about her family’s situation and said the police had advised her to “be stronger” and “stop worrying too much,” as it wouldn’t help much with her case or her conditions in prison.
While expressing how much she missed her mom, Zhang also hoped her mother could try to relax because she tended to be “vulnerable, easily discouraged, and pessimistic.”
According to images of the letter shared by Zhang’s brother and Li’s description, Zhang has been drawing on the written communication in recent months.
“Her mother thinks that if Zhang is able to draw on the envelopes or letters, it seems to suggest that her mental state has changed,” he said. “In one letter, she drew a lot of penguins, which represents the number of times she’s thinking about her mother.”
Despite the optimism about Zhang’s mental state, activists who have been closely following her case still have concerns about her physical well-being.
Human rights lawyer Li told DW that the last time Zhang’s mother met her through a video call, the imprisoned citizen journalist weighed only around 41 kilograms (90 pounds) and that she didn’t look very healthy on the screen.
“While she has gained 2 kilograms since August 2021, when she only weighed 39 kilograms, her weight is still far from ideal for someone as tall as 177 cm,” he explained.
“The most basic indicator that Zhang Zhan could still be in danger is her weight. She may still be staging some form of hunger strike or her body may have simply suffered serious damages that make it difficult for her to eat or digest,” said Jane Wang, an activist who has been campaigning for Zhang’s release since her arrest.
In August 2021, sources told DW that her weight had dropped below 40 kilograms after she staged monthslong hunger strikes in prison. In November 2021, her brother expressed concern on Twitter that Zhang could be on the brink of dying in prison.
Despite the ongoing concerns about her physical well-being, Zhang’s letter offers glimpses of hope that she is determined to survive the prison sentence. ”Even if I were a bruised reed, I won’t break. Even if I were a dying lamp, I won’t be extinguished,” she wrote.
“Autumn is coming and winter too, but please don’t be sad, as spring has begun amid the snow and wind. The seeds are ready to grow out of the ground so they can sprout one day when the opportunity comes,” Zhang added.
Activist Jane Wang told DW that even though there are several sad parts in Zhang’s letter, her words still reflect the fact that she’s spiritually strong.
“Her determination was deeply felt by her family and friends,” Wang said. “It’s sad to read her attempt to console her mother in the letter, but it’s also clear that she wants to send some positive vibes to her family, and offer them some support in her absence.”
Human rights lawyer Li said even though Zhang’s family has previously tried to secure her release on medical parole, her mother no longer mentions this topic.
“She has one year and five months left on her sentence, and I hope she can get through it safely,” he said. “If she can come back safely, I think that’s a win.”
Edited by: Keith Walker
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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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