Beijing’s state editor claims the West ‘should stop harming’ citizen journalist Zhang Zhan who was jailed by China for reporting about coronavirus from Wuhan

  • Hu Xijin claimed Zhang’s imprisonment was ‘a tragedy’ caused by the West
  • The editor of the Global Times accused ‘external forces’ of bewildering her
  • The US and EU demanded that China release the 37-year-old former lawyer
  • Zhang was jailed for four years for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ 
  • She criticised Wuhan government’s handling of the virus during its outbreak

The editor-in-chief of a Chinese state-run newspaper has said that the West ‘should stop harming’ a citizen journalist who was jailed by China over her reports about the coronavirus outbreak from Wuhan.

Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer in custody since May, was handed four years in prison on Monday over her early online accounts that provided a rare unvarnished glimpse of the city where the mysterious respiratory illness was first detected a year ago.

Hu Xijin, the outspoken head of Communist propaganda outlet the Global Times, yesterday accused ‘external forces’ of bewildering Zhang, giving her the ‘illusion’ that ‘her confrontation against the Chinese system are [sic] just and redeeming’.

Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, 37, who was arrested after ‘reporting the truth’ about the coronavirus outbreak from Wuhan has been jailed for four years. In this photo taken on April 14, Zhang eats a meal at a park during a visit to Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province

Hu Xijin (pictured), the head of Communist propaganda outlet the Global Times, has said that the West ‘should stop harming’ Zhang after ‘exploiting’ and bewildering her to land her in jail 

Hu’s comments came as the United States and European Union demanded that China release Zhang, with top US diplomat Mike Pompeo accusing Beijing of covering up Covid-19.

Zhang, 37, was found guilty of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ – a broad-brush charge often used against activists – for her criticism of the Wuhan government’s handling of the crisis at the peak of the city’s coronavirus outbreak.

She travelled to the former virus epicentre before it went into lockdown and sent dispatches about the outbreak through Chinese and international social media platforms.

Her reports challenged Beijing’s official narrative that the government valiantly defeated the virus, questioning hospital capacity and access to virus testing in the early days and showing aggression on the part of Chinese authorities to her filming on her phone.

Zhang Zhan’s lawyer released two file photos of Zhang Zhan (including the one above) in a blog post about the grim situation of the citizen journalist before she was imprisoned in Shanghai

A file photo of Ms Zhang published by her lawyer shows the independent reporter holding a piece of paper with the Chinese words ‘Don’t let China go backwards to becoming North Korea’

Zhang – the first citizen journalist known to have been tried – was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicentre than the official narrative.

The prosecutor claimed that Zhang had spread ‘a large amount of false information’ through text and videos and accepted interviews with foreign media outlets.

Requests to the court to release Zhang on bail before the trial and live-stream the trial went ignored, her lawyers said.

Zhang denied all charges against her and had gone on a hunger strike in protest. She was said to be kept in restraints 24 hours a day and force-fed by tube during her detention.

One of her lawyers Ren Quanniu said they would likely appeal her four-year sentence handed down at a court in Pudong, Shanghai.

One of Ms Zhang’s lawyers Zhang Keke (centre) spoke to the media outside the court before the trial. The lawyer previously revealed Zhang Zhan was kept in restraints 24 hours a day

The picture shows police attempting to stop journalists from filming outside a Shanghai court where citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was tried for her early reports from Wuhan on Covid-19

In an online talk show published by the Global Times, 60-year-old editor Hu attributed Zhang’s imprisonment to the ‘exploitation’ of her by the West.

‘It’s tragic how Western powers ruthlessly consumed her and ruined her,’ Hu lashed out in English, adding that Zhang had ‘definitely’ gone to Wuhan to ‘provoke troubles’.

The official claimed that the content of Zhang’s ‘independent report’ was ‘complete [sic] disconnected from the true context of China’s fight against the epidemic’.

He also criticised Zhang for allegedly joining up with external ideologies and engaging in ‘illegal’ confrontation against the Chinese system.

‘It is impossible for her to do it without violating the law,’ Hu added.

In a separate column, also published yesterday, Hu wrote of Zhang: ‘She has been made a tool by Western forces and become a tragedy.’

Zhang Zhan (pictured) was detained by police in May on suspicion of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. She had travelled to Wuhan to report about the coronavirus outbreak there

The coronavirus was first detected in the city of 11million in central China. Mask-donning resident are pictured wait for medical attention at Wuhan Red Cross Hospital on January 25

One video published by Ms Zhang on YouTube purports to show the ER department of the Hubei Provincial People’s Hospital overrun by patients who had to sleep in the corridor

On Tuesday, the outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on China to release Zhang ‘immediately and unconditionally’. 

‘The Chinese Communist Party has shown once again it will do whatever it takes to silence those who question the party’s official line, even regarding crucial public health information,’ Pompeo said in a statement.

Pompeo is an outspoken critic of Beijing who has attacked China over its role in the origins of the pandemic, which has claimed more than 1.7million lives worldwide.

Amid criticism of Trump’s handling of Covid-19, widely seen as a factor in his election defeat, Pompeo has not ruled out theories, dismissed by mainstream scientists, that China deliberately unleashed the virus.

Pompeo said Tuesday that Beijing’s censorship of Zhang was more evidence of how a ‘controllable outbreak turned into a deadly global pandemic’.

‘Lying is a feature, not a bug of authoritarian regimes,’ Pompeo said.

The Chinese government’s ‘fear of transparency and its ongoing repression of fundamental freedoms are a sign of weakness, not strength, and a threat to all of us.’

In another video series, Ms Zhang said she wanted to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been accused of being the origin of the coronavirus. The institute was surrounded by high-voltage electric fences and run by the military, Ms Zhang said while filming its exterior

China has repeatedly denied the allegations put against the Wuhan virus institute (pictured). Beijing insists that the WHO found no evidence that the novel coronavirus was man-made

The European Union demanded that China release Zhang as well as 12 Hong Kong activists detained at sea.

‘According to credible sources, Ms. Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated. It is crucial that she receives adequate medical assistance,’ EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement.

The EU statement comes as the bloc finalises an investment deal with China after seven years of painstaking negotiations, despite concerns about Beijing’s rights record. 

The office of the UN human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, earlier called the verdict part of an ‘excessive clampdown’ on free expression over Covid and said it had raised concerns with Chinese authorities.

Chen, 34, who went to Wuhan to report about the coronavirus outbreak independently, disappeared while reporting in Wuhan on February 6. His friend said he was being held under ‘supervised surveillance at designated residence’ in the eastern Chinese city Qingdao

Fang Bin (pictured), a Wuhan resident, went missing on February 9 after releasing a series of videos, including one showing piles of bodies being loaded into a bus (above)

Before Ms Zhang, three other citizen journalists had vanished for publishing reports about Wuhan’s epidemic on international social media outlets.

Chen Qiushi, 34, was last heard from on February 6 when he was reporting about the virus in Wuhan. Nearly eight months after his disappearance, Mr Chen’s close friend reportedly revealed in September that he was being held under ‘supervised surveillance at designated residence’ in the eastern Chinese city Qingdao. 

Fang Bin, a businessman, also disappeared in early February and is believed to have been taken into state custody.

Li Zehua, a 25-year-old former state TV journalist, disappeared in late February and re-appeared in late April.

Li Zehua (pictured) vanished on February 26 before re-appearing at the end of April. Li was likely targeted by secret police after visiting the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a report said

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