Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan suffering from malnutrition amid ongoing hunger strike in prison

Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who has been sentenced to four years for reporting about the situation in Wuhan during the initial stage of the coronavirus outbreak, is now experiencing malnutrition after she continues to stage a hunger strike in prison. Her weight has dropped below 40 kilograms and a human rights lawyer who used to handle her case thinks that the Chinese government won’t ease their control over her due to her poor health.

Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan continues her hunger strike in the prison after she was sentenced to four years last December, and her ongoing protest has caused her weight to drop below 40 kilograms and she has been hospitalized on July 31 due to severe malnutrition.

In a screenshot of the text that Zhang’s mother sent to activists inside and outside of China, she said she was finally able to talk to Zhang through the phone earlier this month and the doctor said apart from suffering from malnutrition, Zhang’s feet and legs are also both suffering from edema. “I tried to convince her to start eating normally again, but she still insisted that she was innocent and refused to eat normally,” her mother wrote in the text.

Since Zhang was transferred from the detention center to the prison, her family members haven’t been able to obtain the right to visit her in the prison. They haven’t seen her for more than six months prior to the call on August 2. In May, a source said the prison guards kept using different excuses to reject her mother’s application to visit her, causing her to lose hope about being able to visit Zhang Zhan.

Chinese human rights lawyer Ren Quanniu, who was Zhang’s defense lawyer, said there is almost no channel for the outside world to learn about the exact status of Zhang’s health since even her family members can’t secure the right to visit her. “It is totally predictable to see the prison authorities wait until now to let Zhang’s family talk to her, and I’m also not surprised about Zhang’s continued hunger strike,” he said.

According to Ren, Zhang has always been determined about using hunger strikes as a way to express her anger and the things that she’s protesting against is the Chinese government’s control over freedom of speech rather than her own freedom.

“I don’t think the Chinese government is going to relax the control over her simply because she is having some health problems extending from the hunger strike,” he said. “After all, the Chinese government has never been humane and we also need to remember that her health has been unideal when she was still at the detention center, but the detention center still refused to approve her bail application at the time.”

Ren says Zhang still refuses to admit that she has done anything wrong after being transferred to the prison, so under the circumstance that she still refuses to comply, Ren thinks the prison authorities are not going to treat her in a humane way. “Even if something went wrong with Zhang Zhan, they would still say it is the result of her own choice,” he said.

In fact, Zhang Zhan is not the only Chinese dissident who tries to use hunger strikes as a way to protest the restrictions that the Chinese government imposed on human rights activists. In January, Chinese human rights activist Guo Feixiong was planning to visit his wife in the United States, who was recovering from cancer surgery, but state security agents stopped him at the airport in Shanghai for “national security reasons.” He was prevented from leaving China.

After Guo said he planned to use a hunger strike to put pressure on the Chinese government, he was forced into disappearance. Ren Quanniu says the Chinese government not only won’t tolerate anyone who tries to use extreme methods to pressure them, but they will even use more extreme measures to threaten their personal liberty.

“The Chinese government won’t stop dissidents from using extreme ways to protest, and it shows how little respect they have for life,” said Ren.

This piece was first published on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.