Lawyer-turned-citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, 37, went missing on May 15 after documenting on Youtube, Twitter, and WeChat what she saw in Wuhan during the early days of the SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus) pandemic.
She has now been sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Zhang had already been detained for supporting the 2019 Hong Kong protests, which likely played into her harsh sentence. So far, 47 journalists have been jailed for reporting on COVID-19 in China.
YouTube and Twitter are inaccessible within China because of the Great Firewall which allows the Communist Party of China (CCP) to control the information that comes into and goes out of the country. Within the Great Firewall journalists must adhere to strict guidelines, as published by the Cyberspace Administration of China. The CCP has been accused of suppressing information, downplaying the severity of the coronavirus, and providing a sanitized version of its effectiveness in dealing with the pandemic.
China Digital Times has documented directives regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, summarized in their end-of-year article: “The Virus of Lies: 2020’s Top Ten Ministry of Truth Directives” . Additionally, the New York Times and ProPublica reported on secret government documents provided to them by a hacker group that calls itself “CCP Unmasked,” which they independently verified. The documents show the extent to which the CCP has been controlling the information published online about the early days of the pandemic:
“To stage-manage what appeared on the Chinese internet early this year, the authorities issued strict commands on the content and tone of news coverage, directed paid trolls to inundate social media with party-line blather and deployed security forces to muzzle unsanctioned voices… Though China makes no secret of its belief in rigid internet controls, the documents convey just how much behind-the-scenes effort is involved in maintaining a tight grip. It takes an enormous bureaucracy, armies of people, specialized technology made by private contractors, the constant monitoring of digital news outlets and social media platforms — and, presumably, lots of money.”Raymond Zhong, Paul Mozur, Jeff Kao, and Aaron Krolik, “Leaked Documents Show How China’s Army of Paid Internet Trolls Helped Censor the Coronavirus” at ProPublica (December 19, 2020)
The hacked documents include 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos along with some additional files from the Cyberspace Administration.
According to Voice of America, Zhang and other journalists’ reporting “painted a far more serious picture of the conditions than the government’s official narrative of the spreading infection.” Zhang’s videos showed an overcrowded hospital, with sick people waiting in hallways, a crematorium that was working around-the-clock, and families that were harassed for seeking accountability for a loved one’s death.
The day after Zhang disappeared, she was seen again in Shanghai, 429 miles (692 km), from Wuhan. According to Voice of America, she had been on a hunger strike while being held in a detention center awaiting her trial in Shanghai. Authorities subsequently force-fed her through a feeding tube and constrained her so that she could not remove the tube.
Zhang’s court hearing was held in December between Christmas and New Year’s. Coverage of her trial was censored by Chinese media, and the trial date between the two holidays was likely chosen so the trial did not receive much international coverage. Zhang appeared in court in a wheelchair, weakened from malnourishment. The court sentenced her to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge often used to indict people who run afoul to the CCP. Rights groups condemn Zhang’s harsh sentence, and the U.S. government has called her trial a “sham.”
Zhang’s harsh sentence likely serves as a warning to other citizen journalists who try to circumvent the propaganda department’s controls.
Leo Lan, a research advocacy consultant for the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders told the BBC, “[Her] sentence is so heavy. The Chinese government is very determined to silence her and intimidate other citizens who tried to expose what happened in Wuhan.”
I’ve written before about the suppression of journalists, academics, and doctors who reported on Wuhan during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic: For a brief time in January 2020, journalists experienced some freedom to investigate and report on Wuhan.
But in February, the censors took to the internet, deleting articles and shutting down social media accounts. Authorities detained several citizen journalists. Among those were Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua, along with Zhang Zhan. Chen Qiushi has since posted a video of himself, but said he is being kept under tight surveillance. Li Zehua, who formerly worked at state-run broadcaster CCTV, posted a video in April after disappearing in February, saying he had been detained. Fang Bin has not been seen recently.
Along with journalists, writers have been censored on Sina Weibo and WeChat, China’s two major social media outlets. Renowned Chinese novelist Fang Fang (Wang Fang), a lifelong Wuhan resident (not to be confused with an individual accused of various activities involving American Eric Swalwell), documented her time during quarantine on Weibo in what would later become a book called Wuhan Diary. Her posts were a personal account of the trials and anxieties she and her friends experienced while under Wuhan’s 76-day lockdown. She recounted the trials of people who had to ration their medication because they could not go to the pharmacy to get it. That included herself and her brother, both diabetics. She also documented the many ways local doctors and volunteers worked tirelessly to provide for the community, while also calling the local government to account for secrecy and lying about the disease spread.
Weibo started deleting Fang Fang’s daily posts but many of her fans had saved screen shots. Some used other clever ways to preserve her writing as a historical document of the time, including using Mine Craft and GitHub. Thus, Cyberspace Administration chastised Sina Weibo during the early days of the pandemic for not censoring material fast enough.
Fang Fang became the target of an online smear campaign. (The one-star Amazon reviews reviews are one example.) She was called a traitor and accused of working with America.
She recalls, “This flood of collective curses and insults serves as a record of the most humiliating and shameful documents of this era. When people in the future one day look back and read these comments posted in 2020, they will see that, as a virus was spreading in Wuhan, another virus was infecting people’s language online and spreading all over my Weibo message board” (page 290 of the book.)
Fang Fang’s books are no longer permitted to be sold or published in China.
Two other writers, Ai Xiaoming and Guo Jing also documented their time in Wuhan on Weibo, and as a result, both of their online accounts were suspended. Ai said of the media censorship, “It feels like they know nothing about the dead, or the families’ feelings…The [Chinese] media rarely reports on these issues. There is no space for these people to tell their stories.
The selective blocking of certain kinds of speech while allowing other “frenzied” speech to flourish is an obstacle toward further reform and opening in China, she believes. “The consequences of that will naturally be dangerous,” she said.Michael Standaert, “‘Even mourning is said to shame China’: Women of Wuhan Fight to Be Heard” at The Guardian (January 10, 2021)
Fang Fang told media that publishing houses in China had stopped releasing works for which she was contracted, including her latest novels, though her previously published books were still available in bookstores.
“For a professional writer, not being able to publish and release their work is a very cruel punishment,” she said.Michael Standaert, “‘Even mourning is said to shame China’: Women of Wuhan Fight to Be Heard” at The Guardian (January 10, 2021)
What was the Chinese government so concerned about?
The Cyberspace Administration specifically ordered media to not draw any parallels with the SARS outbreak in 2002, even though doctors and the World Health Organization were already comparing this outbreak to SARS:
China’s curbs on information about the outbreak started in early January, before the novel coronavirus had even been identified definitively, the documents show. When infections started spreading rapidly a few weeks later, the authorities clamped down on anything that cast China’s response in too negative a light.
After a high-level meeting in February, media were told exactly which links should appear on publication home pages, how long those links remained, and which headlines should appear bolded:
“Headlines should steer clear of the words “incurable” and “fatal,” one directive said, “to avoid causing societal panic.” When covering restrictions on movement and travel, the word “lockdown” should not be used, said another. Multiple directives emphasized that “negative” news about the virus was not to be promoted.”Raymond Zhong, Paul Mozur, Jeff Kao, and Aaron Krolik, “Leaked Documents Show How China’s Army of Paid Internet Trolls Helped Censor the Coronavirus” at ProPublica (December 19, 2020)
The directives were not only meant to give Chinese citizens confidence in the government’s ability to handle the virus, but also to appear competent and capable to the rest of the world. In one directive, media were told to downplay reports of foreign donations, so that the country would not appear to need foreign assistance to control the virus.
By way of example, a journalist for Caixin–a magazine that received acclaim for its investigative journalism in Wuhan prior to the censorship crackdown–reported on WeChat in January 2020,
I never thought in my lifetime I’d see dead bodies lying around without being collected and patients seeking medical help but having no place to get treatment… On January 22, on my second day reporting in Wuhan, I knew this was China’s Chernobyl… These days I rarely pick up phone calls from outside of Wuhan or chat with friends and family, because nothing can express what I have seen here.
At that point, censors became more aggressive. Her WeChat posts were deleted the next day, and the friend who took a screenshot of the report and reposted it had her account shut down for spreading “malicious rumors.”
Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, has told ProPublica and the New York Times, “China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources…It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale. “This is a huge thing,” he added. “No other country has that.”
Editor’s note: It will be interesting to see the extent to which that approach becomes integrated with Western media.
Further reading: China’s door-to-door census now identifies religious believers