A Chinese citizen journalist who has been in prison for four years after reporting on the early days of the Covid-19 epidemic in Wuhan is due to be released on Monday.

Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, travelled to Wuhan in February 2020 to document the Chinese government’s response to what became the start of a global pandemic. She shared her reports on X (then known as Twitter), YouTube and WeChat. She was one of the few independent Chinese reporters on the ground as Wuhan and the rest of China went into lockdown.

In one video, recorded in February 2020, Zhang said: “I can’t find anything to say except that the city is paralysed because everything is under cover. That’s what this country is facing now … They imprison us in the name of pandemic prevention and restrict our freedom. We must not talk to strangers, it’s dangerous. So without the truth, everything is meaningless. If we cannot get to the truth, if we cannot break the monopoly of the truth, the world means nothing to us.”

In another video, she showed a hospital that was overflowing with patients on trolleys in the hallway.

Zhang was arrested in May 2020 and later sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a charge often used against activists. She has been held in Shanghai women’s prison ever since.

During her time in prison, Zhang, who turned 40 in September, has engaged in periodic hunger strikes to protest against her conviction and treatment. One of her former lawyers, who has since been struck off, said that when he saw her in the winter of 2020 she was very thin, had a tube up her nose for force feeding, and had her hands tied, so that she could not pull out the tube. “People asked me to convince Zhang Zhan to eat something, but she insisted,” the lawyer said.

Her weight reportedly dropped from 11st 8lb (74.8kg) to less than 6st 4lb (40.8kg) at one point, although she is thought to have been in better health in recent months.

Zhang’s former lawyer said that her case was treated “particularly harshly”. “The judge said that her crime was going to Wuhan to do interviews and investigations. But in fact, what the judge didn’t like was that she collected those materials and put them on Twitter … and received interviews from so-called enemy media,” said the lawyer, referring to publications such as the US government-funded Radio Free Asia.

Maya Wang, the associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s a relief to know that Zhang is being released, given her very poor health in prison, but she shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place. Her imprisonment should remind us all that the Chinese government is yet to be held accountable for covering up the Covid-19 outbreak, or for the abuses associated with its draconian pandemic restrictions.”

Wang said that there were fears that Zhang would not fully regain her freedom after release.

Zhang’s former lawyer said that there were likely two outcomes after her release. The first is that she will be sent home. “The other is that she will be sent somewhere to have ‘soft prison’ time for one to three months … based on my experience of dealing with so-called sensitive people, there will be a period of time where they are not allowed contact with the outside world, not allowed to move somewhere.”

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Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s China director, said: “We urge the Chinese authorities to ensure that Zhang Zhan is fully free from 13 May. She must be allowed to move freely, to communicate with people inside and outside of China, and to reunite with her family. She and her family must not be subjected to surveillance or harassment, and the Chinese authorities must also ensure there are no restrictions on her access to medical treatment after her traumatic ordeal in jail.”

Jane Wang (not related to Maya Wang), a supporter of Zhang’s in the UK, noted that Zhang’s release comes soon after the anniversary of the death of Lin Zhao, a prominent Chinese dissident who was executed during the Cultural Revolution. “Zhang Zhan is young, but has the spirit of Lin Zhao in her,” Wang said. She is the equivalent of Lin Zhao in Xi’s era.”

Additional research by Chi Hui Lin