A Chinese constitutional scholar was temporarily "taken away" and questioned by police Sunday after posting an open letter criticizing the Chinese communist government's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In the widely circulated letter — which was viewed by the South China Morning Post but has since been removed from social media sites — Zhang Xuezhong, 43, reportedly called on China's legislature to carry out political reforms such as instituting freedom of speech.
He wrote that in the absence of a modern constitution, China's governance was backward and that "the outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 epidemic is a good illustration of the problem."
Zhang also slammed the Chinese government's police state tactics such as silencing early whistleblowers amid the outbreak.
"Twenty-two days before the [lockdown] in the city, Wuhan was still investigating and punishing citizens who had disclosed the epidemic, including Dr. Li Wenliang ... showing how tight and arbitrary the government's suppression of society is," he wrote.
He was 'taken away'
A day after posting the letter on his WeChat, Zhang was removed from his Shanghai home by police, according to friends.
"He was taken away on Sunday night. Three police cars came to his house," said Wen Kejian, a close friend of Zhang who is also an independent political analyst.
Another friend, who remained anonymous confirmed that Zhang had been taken into police custody, but said that "he [was] mentally prepared after his open letter."
In his WeChat post, Zhang wrote, "The best way to fight for freedom of expression is for everyone to speak as if we already have freedom of speech."
While allegedly in police custody, the SCMP reported that calls and texts to Zhang and the Shanghai municipal police bureau went unanswered.
He is now back home
Roughly 24 hours after being taken into custody, Zhang was reportedly allowed to return home, friends close to him confirmed, saying that "his physical condition seems all right."
Late Monday, Zhang posted a message to friends on his WeChat thanking them for their support.
"I saw so many friends expressing concern for my current situation. Thank you very much. I am now at home and all is well. Good night everyone. I need to get some sleep first, apologies for not being able to reply to your messages," Zhang wrote.
The outlet noted that Zhang, a former political science and law professor at East China University, is a "regular contributor to overseas publications and a well-known critic of China's political and legal system."
Zhang was reportedly removed from his post at the university in 2013 due to his critical stance against the government. After that, he worked as a defense lawyer for activists before having his license revoked by authorities last year.
The Chinese government has been accused of attempting to cover up the facts surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic since the outbreak started in Wuhan late last year. Since then, the virus has infected more than 4 million people worldwide, resulting in over 285,000 deaths.