‘Abusive Intolerance’: Lawmakers Denounce Beijing’s Jailing of 11 Who Shared Pandemic Photos With The Epoch Times

by EditorT

Falun Gong practitioner Xu Na in an undated photo. (The Epoch Times)

By Eva Fu

Lawmakers and advocates have rebuked the sentencing of the 11 Chinese citizens imprisoned by Chinese authorities after they supplied materials to The Epoch Times shedding light on the toll of the pandemic in China.

The 11, who are all adherents of the persecuted spiritual group Falun Gong, took photos to document life in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in China’s capital Beijing and shared them with the outlet. Eight of them are millennials.

They have been detained since July 2020. A Beijing court on Jan. 14 handed down prison terms varying from two to eight years on top of hefty fines.

Their sentencing, which took place weeks before the Beijing Olympics opening on Feb. 4, underscores what little freedom Chinese citizens and critics have in making their voices heard, U.S. lawmakers and China watchers have said.

“This communist dictatorship has an alarming track record for abusive intolerance of anything that doesn’t comport with the government’s directives,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) told The Epoch Times.

‘Cruelty and Tyranny’

Court documents obtained by The Epoch Times placed considerable emphasis on the publicity the photos had generated. Some of the photos showed shuttered shopping malls and local shops, the stringent lockdown measures authorities had imposed, and police intervention of foreign journalist reporting.

“These above-mentioned materials distort the facts and intentionally malign the Party and the government,” the court verdict stated. The photos had brought tens of thousands of views online and caused “adverse social impact,” it went on to say.

The Beijing prosecutors claimed the traffic was “sufficient to prove that the defendants had been ‘feeding’ information to The Epoch Times.”

deng jingjing and Li jiaxuan

Deng Jingjing (L) and Li Jiaxuan, who have been sentenced to four and two years in prison respectively. (The Epoch Times)

“This is another important reminder in the run-up to the Olympics of how the CCP disparages the freedoms of speech, association, and belief,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told The Epoch Times of the 11’s punishment. “The CCP’s cruelty and tyranny is a genuine threat, especially for those who want to exercise their freedoms in China.”

When the virus first broke out in China, the regime began an aggressive campaign to suppress information about the severity of the outbreak. Police summoned doctors and arrested citizen journalists who tried to share first-hand information about COVID-19; a vast army of trolls was hired to eliminate critical views online; and a primary school teacher lost his teaching license for questioning the official death toll on Chinese media.

Hundreds of police were mobilized in the arrest of the 11 practitioners, according to Minghui, a U.S.-based website that has tracked the persecution since its onset in 1999.

The authorities had likely begun monitoring the 11 after seeing the pandemic photos on the website of the Chinese-language edition of The Epoch Times and identifying them in surveillance camera footage, the Minghui report said.

zheng yanmei and zhang renfei

Zheng Yanmei (L) and Zhang Renfei, who have been sentenced to five and four years in prison respectively. (The Epoch Times)

“These media sources should never have been detained in the first place, even less sentenced to heavy prison,” Cédric Alviani, who oversees the East Asia bureau of press freedom group Reports Without Borders, told The Epoch Times. He called for their immediate release, alongside “all journalists and press freedom defenders detained in China.”

The harsh sentences on those “whose only crime appears to have been to provide photographs to a newspaper” call for strong condemnation, said Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based advocacy group.

zheng yujie

Zheng Yujie in an undated photo. A Beijing court on Jan. 14 sentenced Zheng to five years in prison. (The Epoch Times)

Both groups have ranked communist China as the world’s worst jailer of journalists in their December reports.

Coming just weeks before the Olympics, it reminds of “the difficult environment facing journalists who work in China and of China’s abysmal record on press freedom and human rights more broadly,” Butler told The Epoch Times.

‘Heartbreaking’

Xu Na, a 53-year-old painter, faced the heaviest punishment. In addition to an eight-year prison term, she was also fined 20,000 yuan ($3,160).

Xu had been a witness to two consecutive repressions from Beijing. She was a participant at the student-led Tiananmen Square protest calling for greater democratic freedoms in 1989. After authorities declared the protests a riot and launched a bloody military crackdown—a taboo topic even today in China—she gave up her plans of becoming a journalist, saying she would not want to help spread the regime’s propaganda.

Since 1999, Xu has spent a total of over eight years in prison for her belief in Falun Gong. Her husband, folk singer and musician Yu Zhou, was also a victim of the persecution.

In early 2008, months before the Beijing Summer Olympics, the couple was arrested during an “Olympic check” after police found a Falun Gong book in their car. Yu died 11 days later.

xu na and yu zhou
Xu Na and Yu Zhou in an undated photo. (The Epoch Times)

“Every injustice in the world, however removed it might seem, is closely linked to you,” she wrote in an op-ed published last year in the Chinese-language edition of The Epoch Times. “Because at every moment, it is questioning your conscience.”

The timing of Xu’s sentencing is “especially heartbreaking” given that she had already lost her husband to the persecution, said Sarah Cook, senior China analyst for Freedom House.

“That his widow would now be sentenced to eight years in prison for simply sharing information about the state of the pandemic in Beijing with an overseas news outlet is beyond tragic,” she told The Epoch Times.

“Her heavy sentencing along with others highlights how fearful the Chinese government is over unofficial information about COVID-19 reaching international audiences,” she said. “It’s also a sad reminder of the harsh treatment of Beijing residents, including those who practice Falun Gong, within a short distance from the Olympic venues.”

Eva Fu
CHINA REPORTER

Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S.-China relations, religious freedom, and human rights.

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