The United States and European Union on Tuesday demanded that China release a citizen journalist jailed for reports from Wuhan, with top US diplomat Mike Pompeo accusing Beijing of covering up Covid-19.
Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer in custody since May, was Monday handed four years in prison 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.
Pompeo in a statement called on China to “release her 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,” outgoing President Donald Trump’s secretary of state said.
Zhang’s 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.
The 37-year-old was sentenced by a Shanghai court for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
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 1.7 million 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.
“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 finalizes 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.