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 'delusion' that 'her confrontation against the Chinese system are [sic] just and redeeming'.
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.
Zhang Zhan, a Chinese citizen journalist who criticized the government's handling of the outbreak in Wuhan, was sentenced to four years in prison. https://t.co/6doLGl3GLH— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 28, 2020
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 - 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.
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.'
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.'
The European Union demanded that China release Zhang as well as 12 Hong Kong activists detained at sea.
China jails citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for 4 years for reporting on the virus in Wuhan. She has been on a hunger strike since June and is reportedly force-fed via a nasal tube.— AFP News Agency (@AFP) December 28, 2020
China has punished 8 virus whistleblowers so far.
?Her lawyer Zhang Keke talks to the press pic.twitter.com/3SKLCMXeP9
'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.
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.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.