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Chinese Activist Paying Terrible Price for Public Health Advocacy

Zhang Zhan Protesting Wrongful Imprisonment with Hunger Strikes


Zhang Zhan, an activist who criticized the Chinese government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and is being held in a Shanghai prison.  © Private/Twitter

Zhang Zhan should not have spent her 40th birthday – or indeed any day – in prison.

Zhang, a Shanghai-based activist and former lawyer, went to Wuhan, where Covid-19 was first identified, in February 2020 to document the coronavirus outbreak. For several months she posted short videos on YouTube reflecting the extent of the lockdown, starting with one called “My Claim to the Right of Free Speech.” Authorities detained her that May and took her back to Shanghai. In December a court convicted her of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and sentenced her to four years in prison.

Not only did Zhang not appeal her conviction, contending it was unjust, she has also engaged in periodic hunger strikes in protest. She has told her lawyer that authorities forcibly insert gastric tubes to force feed her and that “every day is torture.” The force feeding of prisoners who are on a voluntary and informed hunger strike violates the Convention against Torture, to which China is party.

The Rights Defense Network reported that Zhang’s weight has now dropped by half, and in July 2023 she was transferred to a prison hospital. It also said that she has been denied family visits, violating international law.

Zhang is slated to be released in May 2024, but there are growing concerns about her health and whether the authorities may prolong her detention.

Chinese authorities have not tolerated questioning their response to Covid. In late 2022, demonstrators peacefully protesting “zero-Covid” policies were met with harassment and detention; several now face the same charges as Zhang.

The Chinese government has repeatedly rejected an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19 and are now censoring key medical and scientific information. In February 2023, the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee characterized the government’s response to Covid-19 as “a miracle.”

But that rhetoric stands in stark contrast to government efforts to silence sharing information about Covid-19 in China, the baseless prosecutions of peaceful speech, and prisoners’ lack of access to adequate medical care. If Beijing wanted to send a message that it was genuinely concerned about addressing public health crises, it should release Zhang Zhan immediately and respect the rights of those speaking out on public health issues.

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