Growing concern for Chinese citizen journalist jailed for exposing Covid chaos

The whereabouts of a Chinese citizen journalist jailed for reporting on the Covid outbreak in Wuhan remain unknown, a day after she was scheduled for release from prison.

Zhang Zhan, a lawyer, was due to be released on Monday after spending four years in prison for documenting the outbreak in February 2020.

Ms Zhang, 40, travelled from Shanghai to Wuhan in the early days of the outbreak and posted firsthand accounts on social media from crowded hospitals and empty streets that projected a more dire picture than the official narrative.

She was arrested in May 2020 and convicted by a Shanghai court that December of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", a vaguely defined charge often used in political cases.

Ms Zhang was scheduled to walk out of the Shanghai Women’s Prison on Monday. However, activists said they were yet to receive confirmation of her release.

“Zhang Zhan's relatives and family haven't yet responded to me,” one of her lawyers, Zhang Keke, said.

Another lawyer Ren Quanniu, who previously represented Ms Zhang, said he could not reach her father.

Ms Zhang’s parents have declined interview requests from the media in the past.

Jane Wang, founder of the Zhang Zhan concern group, said they were unable to contact Ms Zhang. "So far, we have not received any confirmation that Zhang Zhan has left the prison and is home with her family," Ms Wang, who appears to be based in the UK, said in a statement on X.

Ms Wang alleged that an activist from Henan who was en route to Shanghai to greet Ms Zhang after her release was intercepted at a train station.

Shen Yanqiu, who had planned to go with Ms Zhang’s family to receive her at the prison, declined to speak to the media. She told the wire agency Associated Press that she had been “invited to drink tea", a euphemism for a police interrogation.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Ms Zhang’s case, saying: “I’m not aware of the situation.”

“We have received warning signals that some activists and lawyers, based in China, have been threatened in recent weeks by Chinese authorities not to raise Zhang Zhan's case internationally," Aleksandra Bielakowska, an advocacy officer for Reporters Without Borders, said.

Ms Zhang's health declined in jail and she was admitted to a prison hospital, according to the nonprofit.

While in prison, Ms Zhang reportedly went on a prolonged hunger strike that impacted her health and prompted authorities to feed her forcibly. Her lawyer told reporters that she became very thin during her stay in prison and had a tube up her nose for forced feeding.

Another citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, disappeared while filming in Wuhan in February 2020. He resurfaced on a friend’s YouTube live in September 2021 and said he had suffered from depression but didn’t provide any details about his disappearance.