Veteran rights activist formally arrested after retweeting video of ‘silver’ protest


Zhang Hai has been an outspoken critic of the government since the start of the pandemic in Wuhan.

Veteran rights activist formally arrested after retweeting video of 'silver' protest

Veteran activist Zhang Hai was detained by authorities after reposting video clips of the “silver” protests in Wuhan, along with media reports and comments to his Twitter account.

Authorities in China have formally arrested a veteran activist who campaigned for the rights of COVID-19 victims after he publicly expressed support for recent protests by older people over cuts to medical insurance payouts.

Zhang Hai was detained by authorities in the southern city of Shenzhen after he reposted video clips of the “silver” protests in Wuhan, along with media reports and comments to his Twitter account. He was one of at least five people detained in the wake of the demonstrations.

Zhang, who lives in Shenzhen, became an outspoken critic of the ruling Chinese Communist Party since the pandemic prompted a city-wide lockdown in Wuhan and killed his father. The authorities placed restrictions on his bank cards and on routine banking transactions in June 2022.

He has now been formally arrested on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” a catch-all public order charge applied to rights campaigners and critics of the government, a person familiar with the situation told Radio Free Asia.

Hubei-based dissident Gao Fei said he wasn’t surprised by Zhang’s arrest.

“Zhang Hai has never backed down, and has always insisted on speaking the truth despite threats,” Gao said. “He kept on fighting and appealing over his father’s case, and also mobilized other victims to do the same.”

“It wasn’t just a case of making a few comments – he also took practical action,” he said. “This is anathema to the authorities, who see him as an early adopter” of action for families hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“His case will definitely set a precedent for the way the rest of us are treated if we speak out online,” Gao said.


Zhang’s detention came after thousands of people took to the streets of two Chinese cities – Wuhan and Dalian – on Feb. 15 in a second mass protest over major cuts to their medical benefits.

The protests were a continuation of an earlier rally outside municipal government headquarters in Wuhan on Feb. 8 against the slashing of medical payouts under an insurance scheme offered to retired employees of state-owned enterprises.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine says the “silver protests” were the result of “rumor-mongering,” and ordered police and local officials to carry out “ideological work” with people who attended the demonstrations 

Zhang is currently being held in the Wuhan No. 2 Detention Center, and his family have relinquished their right to hire him a defense attorney “after taking various factors into consideration,” the person familiar with his case said.

Since a nationwide crackdown on hundreds of rights attorneys and law firms in 2015, police have begun to put pressure on the families of those detained for political dissent to fire their lawyers and allow the government to appoint a lawyer on their behalf, in the hope of a more lenient sentence.

Netherlands-based dissident Lin Shengliang said Zhang had already hired a lawyer, but could have been forced to let them go after intense pressure from the authorities.

“The main reason for his arrest has to do with his long-term whistle-blowing about the [emergence of the] COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, his ongoing efforts to trace the origin of the virus, and his pursuit of accountability for the officials involved [in covering up the severity of the initial outbreak],” Lin said.

“An insider revealed to me that Zhang had planned to hire a lawyer … but hasn’t contacted one so far,” he said. “I’m guessing that was suppressed, likely under huge pressure and great duress.”

“They put huge pressure on family members, using threats to coerce and manipulate them into doing exactly what the authorities want,” Lin said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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