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Status of Chinese woman who reported on Covid unknown on day of expected release

A pro-democracy activist holds placards with the picture of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan outside the Chinese central government’s liaison office, in Hong Kong (Kin Cheung/AP)
A pro-democracy activist holds placards with the picture of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan outside the Chinese central government’s liaison office, in Hong Kong (Kin Cheung/AP)

The whereabouts of a Chinese citizen journalist who served four years in prison for reporting on the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan and was expected to be released on Monday are unknown, sparking concern from activists.

Zhang Zhan, who had been sentenced to four years in prison on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vaguely defined charge often used in political cases, has finished serving her sentence at Shanghai’s Women Prison.

Ren Quanniu, a former lawyer who previously represented Ms Zhang, said he could not reach her father and expressed concern that Ms Zhang would be released only to be put under another form of control by police.

Monday was the last day of her four-year sentence, confirmed Mr Ren and Jane Wang, another overseas activist who launched the Free Zhang Zhan campaign in the UK.

Ms Zhang was among a handful of citizen journalists who travelled to the central Chinese city of Wuhan after the government put it under total lockdown in February 2020, in the early days of the pandemic.

She walked around the city to document public life as fears grew about the then-mysterious coronavirus.

Other citizen journalists have also spent time in jail for documenting the early days of the pandemic, including Fang Bin, who published videos of overcrowded hospitals and bodies during the outbreak.

Mr Fang was sentenced to three years in prison and released last April.

Chen Qiushi, another citizen journalist, disappeared in February 2020 while filming in Wuhan.

Mr Chen in September 2021 resurfaced on a friend’s live video feed on YouTube, saying he had suffered from depression but did not provide details about his disappearance.

During her prison stay, Ms Zhang staged a hunger strike and was hospitalised at one point in 2021.

Her family have faced police pressure during her stay in prison, and her parents have declined interview requests from media.

Her family at times could only speak to their daughter by phone at the prison.

Shen Yanqiu, who had planned to go with Ms Zhang’s family to receive her at the prison, declined to speak to The Associated Press, saying she had been “invited to drink tea,” a euphemism for a police interrogation.

Calls to Ms Zhang’s brother went unanswered.

Calls to the Shanghai Prison Administration office also went unanswered.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin declined to comment on the case when asked on Monday, saying “I’m not aware of the situation.”

The coronavirus remains a sensitive topic in China.

In the first week of May, a Chinese scientist who was the first to publish a sequence of the COVID-19 virus staged a protest after authorities barred him from his lab, after years of demotions and setbacks.

An Associated Press investigation also found that the government froze domestic and international efforts to trace the virus from the first weeks of the outbreak.