By William J. Furney
What has China done with a citizen journalist reporting on the early days of the coronavirus pandemic from the epicentre in Wuhan? Praised her efforts at revealing what was happening, for the good of the local populace and the wider world now still crippled by the pathogen? No. She’s been flung in jail, and allegedly tortured — locked up for four years for “picking quarrels and stirring-up trouble”.
A court in Shanghai handed down the peculiar verdict on Monday, sentencing former layer Zhang Zhan, 37, to years behind bars for doing nothing but describing events as they unfolded. “I don’t understand,” her mother, Shao Wenxia, was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying. “All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years.”
One of Zhang’s lawyers, Ren Quanniu, told the news agency: “Ms Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech”, and said the legal team would file an appeal.
Zhang was arrested in May and had been on hunger strike for months.
China hoped the Western would wouldn’t notice the ruling, because it was, after all, Christmas, and everyone was on holiday. Beijing has this surreptitious, and ludicrous, history when dealing with upstart dissidents: quash them before they have a chance to cause any further harm to the all-powerful overlords.
Just like Dr Li Wenliang, who tried to raise the alert about a mysterious new disease at his hospital in Wuhan but was warned by local authorities to keep quiet and that he was “making false comments” and had “severely disturbed the social order”.
What’s disturbing is the social disorder in the halls of power in Beijing.
Dr Li, who died from coronavirus, aged just 34, was hauled before the local authorities and made to sign a letter that went: “We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice — is that understood?”
Just like newspaper owner and pro-democracy champion Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong — which, due to a new security law, Beijing now has even more control over — who is in jail awaiting charges under the contentious legislation of endangering national security.
One-party, Communist-ruled China does not want democracy under any circumstances. Or anyone daring to speak out, about anything, new viruses included. Even harmless, meditative movement Falun Gong is branded a terrorist organisation, despite never having hurt anyone or carrying out a terrorist act. Paranoid much?
There is no free media in China, only the state, controlled kind, and much of the internet is either blocked or highly censored — the Great Firewall of China.
Meanwhile, the cold-blooded mandarins of the Xi Jinping government continue to persecute the minority, Muslim Uighurs in remote Xinjiang region, according to rights groups. Beijing denies the accusations but Genocide Watch, the Uighur Human Rights Project and other rights organistions wrote an open letter in September in which they alleged genocide of the Uighurs was taking place.
“The atrocities include arbitrary detention of between 1 and 1.8 million people in internment camps, a widespread program of political indoctrination, enforced disappearances, destruction of cultural sites, forced labour, disproportionate rates of prison incarceration and coercive birth prevention campaigns and policies,” the letter said.
“These measures meet the threshold of acts constitutive of genocide, core international crimes under the Genocide Convention, which prohibits ‘imposing measures intended to prevent births’ among an ethnic or religious group,” it reads.
The human rights groups called on the United Nations Security Council to launch an investigation into their claims, but all they got from the top-heavy organisation’s rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, was a limp response about possibly, at some point, visiting Xinjiang, if Beijing allowed her to.
But the boss of her sister agency, Tedros of the World Health Organisation, rushed to Beijing to get anointed, and then stood back as the virus raged early last year and said China was doing a fantastic job of containing the contagion, even as it was spreading all around the world.
The European Union, as of January 1 minus Great Britain and now comprised of 27 states, lashed out at Zhang’s sentencing and called for her immediate release, as well as for nearly a dozen “human rights defenders” detained by the Chinese authorities.
“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,” the EU said in a statement.
At least the UN has also called for her release, saying in a tweet on Monday: “We are deeply concerned by the 4-year prison sentence imposed on citizen journalist Zhang Zhan. We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to #COVID19 & continue to call for her release.”
But as a reply to the tweet pointed out, how can anyone take the UN seriously when China now has a seat at the UN Human Rights Council? (And despite the council saying in December that one of its top officials had uncovered that China was undermining human rights by locking up rights lawyers “and even torturing them”.)
With China — where much of the Western world’s products, including iPhones, are made — projected to become the biggest economy on the planet by 2028, financially benefiting from the pandemic as other nations suffered, according to a new analysis by the UK-based Centre for Economics and Business Research, it’s all about the money and no one is really listening, or cares.
China’s manufacturing might is fast propelling the giant nation to superpower status, leaving the United States in the dust; and so the mandarins can do as they please. Human rights and freedoms are mere blips on the way to global dominance.