A Chinese citizen whose father died from COVID-19 in a Wuhan hospital has sued to hold the hospital, the city and provincial governments responsible. Zhang Hai is alleging negligence and a deliberate cover-up of the disease caused by the coronavirus.
China’s first administrative litigation of its kind, however, stands little chance of prevailing at trial as the nation’s court system isn’t independent from the ruling Communist Party, according to his lawyer, Chen Jiangang.
The case, however, will set an example for other victims’ families to follow suit and stand up against Chinese rights abusers while challenging China’s official narrative in its claimed success in combating the disease, rights activist Yang Zhanqing said.
Setting an example
Zhang said in court filings that his father, Zhang Lifa, underwent surgery for fractured bones on January 20 in the military-affiliated General Hospital of the Central Theater Command in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first discovered.
The elder Zhang died of COVID-19 on February 1.
The younger Zhang, who now lives in Shenzhen, in China’s southern Guangdong province, accused the hospital of negligence for failing to put confirmed COVID-19 patients in isolation wards, which he believes had exposed him and his father to the infection.
Seeking $283,000 in compensation, Zhang also accused the Wuhan and Hubei provincial governments of a cover-up, which he believed led to complacency on the part of the hospital and the public toward the spread of the infection. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province.
Zhang said his decision to take legal action shows his determination to seek accountability.
“I’ve been pursuing accountability. But they [the police] keep suppressing me in any way they can to try to silence me. This [lawsuit] sends a message that I will never be silent. I won’t stop holding them responsible,” Zhang told VOA.
Zhang, however, said he is paying a price, as he is under heavy surveillance by the authorities.
“They tap my phone and keep a tab on my WeChat and Weibo posts. They can have a printout of what I’ve said in my WeChat groups. This has really annoyed me. I’m neither a spy nor anti-communist. Instead of making efforts to monitor me, why don’t you take time to address my complaints?” he asked, adding that he and his family have long been supportive of the communist government.
Fearful for Zhang’s safety, his lawyer, Chen, said China’s threat toward both the accusers and rights lawyers is real.
“The Wuhan police have made it clear to victims’ families that arrests will be made if more than five of them reach out to one another to discuss the disease,” said Chen, who currently lives in the United States.
“They also said that if you keep pressing charges or seeking compensation ... they will next hurt other members of your family, including your [underaged] kids,” he added during an interview with VOA.
The lawyer said that in a normal society, Zhang would stand a great chance of winning the case.
In the Chinese courts tightly controlled by the Communist Party, Zhang’s case is unlikely to be processed as it makes the local government vulnerable to criticism, Chen added.
China has also imposed “three bans and six nos” to intimidate Chinese rights lawyers, who are prohibited from engaging in anti-government discussions, providing legal assistance to victims’ families who seek national compensation, or even talking to the foreign press, according to Chen.
Although his lawsuit stands little chance of success, Zhang sets an example for other victims’ families to stand up against Chinese coercion, said Yang, the rights activist and co-founder of China’s Chang Sha Funeng nonprofit organization, which has helped the families of more than 20 COVID-19 victims to seek justice.
Four other victims’ families will follow suit to take legal action while eight other families are hoping to negotiate with the local government, he said.
Defying China’s narrative
Their stories will also challenge China’s claimed success in fighting the disease, Yang said. According to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 dashboard, China has had 84,220 confirmed cases and more than 4,630 deaths.
The veteran rights activist also denounced a Thursday report by the state-backed China Society for Human Rights Studies, which argues that the pandemic has magnified the crisis of U.S.-style human rights.
The report criticizes what it calls the U.S. government’s inefficient response to the pandemic as prioritizing special interest groups over human lives and politicizing the issue. China says U.S. politicians have used the pandemic as a weapon to attack political rivals and seek election benefits. The U.S. presidential election is November 3, 2020.
Yang, who is based in the U.S., said that the Chinese report “can’t stand the test of facts” and can’t stand up under scrutiny.
At the height of the outbreak, rights and freedoms weren’t seriously eroded in New York, a coronavirus hot spot, as they had been in Wuhan, he said.
“When the pandemic got worse in New York, [I’d seen] nothing like what happened on the streets of Wuhan, where bodies were left unattended, people got beaten, kicked or hanged themselves to death — horrifying and doomsday-like sights. The way New York fought the disease put none under high-handed pressure,” he said.
By contrast, China’s success in containing the virus is built upon the sacrifice of many, he added.