China Releases Wuhan Covid-19 Whistleblower from Prison
China has finally released Fang Bin a citizen journalist, who chronicled the initial Covid epidemic in the Chinese city of Wuhan, after three years in prison. Fang went missing after sharing videos of sights in Wuhan, the pandemic’s epicenter.
After going missing in February 2020, he was sentenced to three years in prison at a secret trial in Wuhan, according to China’s state media.
He was freed on Sunday and is said to be in good health. He returned to his hometown of Wuhan.
The video that drew the most attention was one in which he counted eight body bags outside a Covid hospital in five minutes. He stated that he was jailed that night but later freed. Then came a video with the message, “All people revolt – return government power to the people.” That was the final video he posted.
Although activists applauded his release, they are concerned about the fate of another whistleblower, Zhang Zhan, a 39-year-old former lawyer who was arrested in May 2020 and sentenced to four years in prison in December 2020.
According to the BBC, she, like Mr Fang, was convicted for “picking quarrels and causing trouble,” a vague charge that has frequently been employed against critics of China’s government. Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua, two additional citizen reporters, also went missing in Wuhan in February 2020, but reappeared months later.
Wuhan China Ground Zero
Their videos offered a rare glimpse into Wuhan in early 2020. Cases were piling up, and lockdowns were in effect, but information from officials was scant. Wuhan was severely strained during its 76-day lockdown, which inspired the country’s draconian zero-Covid approach.
After hearing about a resident’s experience, Ms Zhang, who lived in Shanghai, flew to Wuhan in February 2020 to report on the outbreak. She was active on YouTube and Twitter, both of which are prohibited in mainland China, and she continued to share videos despite allegedly receiving threats from local officials.
“Perhaps I have a rebellious spirit… I’m simply recording the truth. “How come I can’t tell the truth?” She stated this in an interview with an independent filmmaker obtained by the BBC.
According to the Free Zhang Zhan group, she went on a hunger strike shortly after her detention and was sometimes force-fed as her weight dropped to under 40kg (88lb). It’s unclear whether she’s still on hunger strike. Her family is unaware of her predicament.
Her brother posted images of a letter written by Ms Zhang in now-deleted tweets in December. He explained that she drew flowers on the letter to reassure their mother.
Ms Zhang’s message was largely concerned with her mother, who had recently undergone surgery and chemotherapy. She went on to say that she was treated kindly by the authorities.
Mr Fang’s release occurred quietly and without warning, as China attempts to recover from the pandemic. Years of torturous lockdowns and rigorous Covid restrictions took their toll, but their abrupt end late in 2022 triggered a disastrous Covid tsunami.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the country has reported 120,000 deaths since the outbreak began. Almost half of those were recorded between December 8, 2022 and January 12, 2023. However, the figures do not accurately reflect the true toll.
The Chinese Communist Party’s top authorities declared a “decisive victory” over Covid in February, boasting the world’s lowest fatality rate. They also called the country’s escape from Covid a “miracle.”
A new history textbook describes how the government “achieved major achievements in co-coordinating pandemic prevention and control.”
And, because of China’s swift and effective censorship machine, the videos and accounts shared by people like Mr Fang and Ms Zhang will likely fade from memory, if they haven’t already.
“I visited China in March, and my observations were that people there want to move forward and leave the past behind,” says Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
China’s Zero Covid Policy
“They had to put up with the draconian zero-COVID for a long time, and they now long for a return to a more normal way of life.” However, he adds, the desire to move on is also motivated by a lack of public discussion or debate.
Nobody in Wuhan has forgotten how things was in early 2020.
One 31-year-old local, who did not want to be identified, said he had never heard of Fang Bin but remembered Li Wenliang, a doctor who sought to warn the world about the coronavirus but died after contracting it. Mr Li was probed for “spreading rumours,” but he was eventually apologised to by local authorities.
He claims he frequently discusses the pandemic with his pals, even though he realises they may be in the minority.
“Society is revising the memory of this time period,” he argues. During the lockdown, he indicated he lived with his parents. His mother would be so worried that she would wash her hands so frequently that her hands cracked.
“My mother is still confused about the virus.” If the media begins to report on the virus again, she will wear a mask. She is quite terrified.”
Others, like Yang Min, lost their only child to Covid in January 2020. She believes that if officials had issued an early warning, her daughter could have been rescued.
Three years later, she is still working to hold people accountable and is attempting to sue the local government.
She is being watched, but she is not terrified, she told the BBC earlier this year.
“I’ve already lost the most valuable thing in my life.” What else is there?