Worry as Wuhan blogger's release remains unclear

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Concerns are growing for the safety of a Chinese blogger, who has not surfaced days after she was meant to be freed from jail.

Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years for livestreaming the Covid-19 lockdowns in Wuhan. She was convicted of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble".

She was due to be released on Monday, but her whereabouts remain unclear, sparking concerns from rights groups.

The 40-year-old is among a number of people who got into trouble for reporting on Covid-19.

"The international community must not forget Zhang Zhan and should demand that the Chinese government ensure that she is truly free," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Reporters Without Borders advocacy officer Aleksandra Bielakowska told BBC News that the organisation had not received any information about Zhang since Monday.

Ms Zhang's family had also stopped receiving calls from her supporters, indicating that they could be under pressure from the authorities, Ms Bielakowska said.

In another "red flag", authorities had stopped activists who wanted to witness her release, she said.

"We don't know in which state she is right now, this is the biggest concern," she said.

Based on how China has handled similar cases in the past, Ms Bielakowska said Ms Zhang could have been moved to a secret location a few days before Monday to avoid the media glare.

Ms Zhang's lawyer had told the BBC before Monday that they expect her "personal freedom will still be restricted" and that she will be made to stay with her parents in Shanghai.

Jerome Cohen, an expert in Chinese law, said "most released human rights advocates are kept quiet through informal means of suppression. Some try to leave the country and are successful in continuing to report on human rights violations in China but they are exceptions," Prof Cohen said.

A lawyer for Ms Zhang said her family had been "frequently approached" by police during her detention, and were instructed not to discuss the case with others.

A rebellious soul

Ms Zhang travelled to Wuhan from her home in Shanghai in February 2020 to document what life in Wuhan after it was locked down.

Her livestreams and essays were widely viewed on social media, and she continued to produce them despite threats from authorities.

One of her livestreams showed how she kept her camera rolling while an official warned her to "stop filming or [he would] get mad".

"Maybe I have a rebellious soul... I'm just documenting the truth. Why can't I show the truth?" she said in an interview with an independent filmmaker, a clip of which was obtained by the BBC.

"I won't stop what I'm doing, because this country can't go backwards."

This was thought to be her last interview before she was detained.

Ms Zhang had posted more than 100 videos on her YouTube Channel, WeChat and Twitter, before sh was reported missing on 14 May 2020.

The next day, authorities announced that she was detained by police in Shanghai. She was charged in November that year and was sentenced the following month.

Ms Zhang went on a hunger strike in the first few months of detention, and her lawyer said then that she was being force-fed through a tube.

She remained on partial strike until July 2023, when her weight reportedly plummeted to just 37kg - half of what it was before her detention.

She was also suffering from severe malnutrition, gastrointestinal disease, and low white blood cell count, RSF said.

Because citizen journalists were the only unfiltered source of Covid-19 news, they facef constant "constant harassment", Amnesty International said.

When the pandemic first struck in early 2020, the heavily-censored Chinese internet was inundated with messages describing government cover-ups and failures in the healthcare system.

But the state's censorship machine doubled down to suppress the unprecedented online anger. Several channels went quiet, posts were swiftly erased and some activists like Ms Zhang received explicit warnings from the authorities.

Medical staff check information as patients infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus leave from Wuhan No.3 Hospital to Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on March 4, 2020.
Citizen journalists in China provided the world an uncensored view of the pandemic [Getty Images]

Among the most well-known cases was that of Dr Li Wenliang, a whistleblower who had tried to warn his colleagues about a "Sars-like virus".

Dr Li died in February 2020 after contracting Covid-19. It was later revealed that he had been under investigation for "disturbing social order" by "making false comments". His death sparked an outpouring of support on social media, but the posts were periodically scrubbed.

The Communist Party filled state media with positive stories about its Covid-19 response. In February 2023, the party's top leaders declared "victory" over the virus and described the government’s response to Covid-19 as “a miracle”.

Additional reporting by Sylvia Chang

Read more of the BBC's coverage on Covid-19 in China