A joint statement by the Writers for Peace Committee (WfPC) and the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC)
6 April 2021: The COVID-19 pandemic broke out first in China, but China was also the first country to bring it under control. The government applied resolute but often brutal means to eliminate the virus. It adopted the same measures that it used to silence the people who had sent out warnings while the authorities tried to hide the truth at the beginning. Too many Wuhan people died without knowing what had killed them. The whistle-blower Dr. Li Wenliang died from COVID-19 after he was reprimanded by the police for “spreading rumours” about its dangers.
A year on, over 219 countries and territories have been affected. 2.5 million people have died globally of this coronavirus so far. The world economy has stagnated, borders have closed, communications are restricted, people have lost their jobs. There is still no end to the catastrophe.
In China, there are many people who have been persecuted because they have practiced their freedom of expression and posted online information about the coronavirus situation. The following are known cases:
The Shanghai based journalist and lawyer, Ms. Zhang Zhan, 37, hurried to Wuhan on 1 February 2020, one week after the city was locked down. She took pictures of the crowded hospitals, the empty streets, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Nanhai Seafood Market (the supposed original ground zero of Covid-19) the crematoria with smoke ascending day and night. She described the smell of death and fear, agony as well as rage. Zhang uploaded her video clips to YouTube. Her first hand accounts provide a dire picture of a besieged city, a contrast to the official narrative.
Zhang Zhan was arrested and transported back to Shanghai in mid-May. She was kept in a detention centre for 6 months before she was charged in November with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a preferred wording to accuse dissidents. Zhang was tortured and kept in handcuffs 24 hours a day for the entire detention period. She began a hunger strike in June and was forced fed The feeding tube has damaged her mouth, throat and stomach. On Dec. 28, she was sentenced to four years. Zhang’s mother was allowed to attend the trial, she said afterwards “I don’t understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years.”
The publisher and businesswoman Ms. Geng Xiaonan has a publishing company in Beijing. Together with her husband they have 9 employees working in the firm. Ms. Geng Xiaonan and her husband were detained on 9 September 2020 and formally arrested a month later. On 9 February 2021, she was sentenced to 3 years and her husband 2 years and 6 months. Their charge was “illegal business activities”. They were accused of illegally preparing 200,000 copies of books for publication. However, the international media believes that she was punished because she spoke out in defending law professor Xu Zhangrun, who has published essays with remarks critical of the Communist Party and President Xi Jinping. Ms. Geng also tried to protect the persecuted COVID-19 reporter Chen Qiushi.
In court, Geng has behaved just as the authority wanted. She told the judge:“I plead guilty to everything that is in the indictment, to everything the prosecution has charged me with…I am grateful to have this precious opportunity here in court to admit my mistakes and to apologise.” Furthermore, she said, “all the evidence that has been read out against me just now is correct. ” She had earlier fired her attorney, a common demand made by the authorities in political cases.
Mr. Chen Qiushi, 35, was a human rights lawyer before he became a citizen-journalist. He went to Hong Kong in August 2019 and covered the Hong Kong protests. His documentary on Hong Kong has won him over 700,000 followers online. On 24 January 2020, a day after the lockdown in Wuhan, he travelled to this city of 11 million and tried to make a documentary about Covid-19. On 6 February he disappeared. It was alleged that he was “quarantined by force”. On 18 September his friend released information that he was under the authorities' surveillance. Another unconfirmed source said he was in Qingdao at his parents' house. We still have no reliable account about Chen’s whereabouts.
Mr. Fang Bin is a Wuhan businessman and citizen journalist. He used WeChat and YouTube to disseminate the pictures he took when Wuhan fell into the COVID-19 panic. Between February 1-9 he was caught by the police several times. Finally he disappeared on 9 February. No one knows his current whereabouts.
Mr. Li Zehua, 26, is a professional reporter. He used to work at CCTV. During the pandemic he sneaked to Wuhan, hoping to trace the missing journalist Chen Qiushi. He did not find Chen, yet on his professional initiative he made videos of various Covid-19 hotspots: hospitals, the train station, the cemeteries, the P4 laboratory. He uploaded all the clips onto YouTube until he disappeared on February 26. On April 22 Li posted a video on YouTube and WeChat, explaining that he had been taken to the police station on Feb. 26. There he was detained and quarantined, later he was moved to his home town. Li said in the video that he was released by police on March 28, however there has been no sign of Li Zehua since then.
The cases above are just examples of the suppression of freedom of expression in China. They are only the tip of the iceberg. It is worth noting that China signed the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political rights in 1998 but the People’s Congress has yet to ratify it.
The Peace Committee of PEN International calls on the government of the People’s Republic of China to:
- End the persecution of all writers, journalists and scholars who have written or reported about the Covid-19 pandemic, or criticised the government's handling.
- Immediately release all citizen journalists and publishers jailed for reporting or criticising the Wuhan Covid-19 situation, including Zhang Zhan, Geng Xiaonan, her husband Qin Zhen.
- Explain the whereabouts of Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua. Guarantee their safety and their right to work.
- Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by the PRC government in October 1998.
- Cease the ill treatment and torture of jailed writers, journalists, and all other political prisoners.