When Zhang Hai checked his father into a hospital in Wuhan mid-January, he had no idea a novel coronavirus was sweeping through the city.
Chinese authorities had yet to sound the alarm, despite mounting evidence the virus was fatal and transmitting quickly – at least two were dead, and infections had spread abroad. But police pressured doctors to stay silent, and hospitals wouldn’t allow extra protective gear, even as medical staff fell ill.
So Mr Zhang never imagined his father, a 76-year-old veteran, would be infected with Covid-19 at the hospital while having a thigh fracture repaired, and die within a week.
“If the government didn’t cover up the disease in the early stages, my father wouldn’t have died,” Mr Zhang, 50, told the Telegraph. “I am furious... so many people lost their lives during this pandemic. What they did amounts to murder.”
On Wednesday, Mr Zhang filed the first lawsuit in China against the government that seeks restitution for its cover-up of the pandemic, according to lawyers and documents reviewed by the Telegraph.
He’s demanding nearly 2 million yuan (£215,000) from the authorities and the hospital to cover his late father’s government pension had he survived, the psychological toll on the family and funeral expenses, as well as an official apology.
The unprecedented lawsuit poses immense risk for Mr Zhang as it challenges the ruling Communist Party’s official narrative, which denies a cover-up, glosses over missteps, and instead focuses on containment success.
China has used a selective timeline to defend against growing criticism over its lack of transparency in the pandemic, even as lawsuits seeking punitive damages from Beijing pile up across the globe, including in the US, India and Nigeria.
“The case is very sensitive, so the court will probably give us a cold shoulder,” Yang Zhanqing, Mr Zhang’s lawyer, said from the US where he sought refuge after being detained in China for his work. “At the same time, the court will notify the local government, and the authorities will coerce him to withdraw the lawsuit.”
Chinese authorities are working overtime to snuff out anger over its mishandling of the outbreak.
In Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic, police have threatened to arrest people organising to file complaints if they meet in groups of five or more, said Chen Jiangang, a human rights lawyer trying to negotiate settlements for families of those who died.
“The pressure comes from everywhere – not only from the police, but also the Communist Party neighbourhood committees, in the workplace, even relatives at home,” he said.
One state-owned company employee was pressured by her manager to stop complaining to journalists that a hospital refused to issue a coronavirus diagnosis, even though she tested positive and needed a positive diagnosis to file an insurance claim. Her boss warned doing so was a “political mistake,” her lawyer told the Telegraph.
Others have been compelled by police and local party officials to abandon their pursuits for reparations. Lawyers in China have also been told to cease providing assistance.
“If you show you are indignant or critical, they can immediately locate you and get information about your family and movements, including who you talked to and where you have been,” said Mr Chen, who lives in the US after fleeing pressure and threats in China for his work. “There’s 24-hour monitoring.”
Most people acquiesced out of fear, but Mr Zhang continues to defy threats. His social media posts have been censored and police have made clear they’re watching him.
Police waved a printout of his comments in a group chat – since shut down by the authorities – with more than a hundred people hoping to seek reparations for relatives’ deaths, chiding him for “meddling with ‘anti-China’ forces,” he said.
The Chinese government frequently blame dissidents for unpatriotic behaviour by siding with “foreign” forces, an argument that has gotten louder as countries call for an independent inquiry into coronavirus origins.
“If we say anything, they accuse us of handing a knife to ‘anti-China’ agents,” said Mr Zhang. But “they’re the ones wielding the knife, hurting me, so why am I not allowed to speak up?”
His lawyer was so concerned for his safety that he immediately feared police had detained Mr Zhang after he stopped replying to messages for two hours the day after filing the lawsuit.
For now, a draconian mix of surveillance and the threat of consequences has kept social unrest at bay. Authorities have managed to rein in public anger that hit a peak when whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang died in February and government censors struggled to delete the surge of critical comments online.
But in Wuhan, discontent continues to brew. Families remain angry with hospitals and quarantine facilities for not accepting patients and negligence, while others are upset at companies for mandating work and offering inadequate protective supplies.
A woman whose father-in-law died is quarrelling with quarantine facility staff for refusing to deliver medicine to him and failing to provide a health certificate that would allow the family to apply for reparations.
Protests have also sprung up. As quarantines lifted in April, dozens of shopkeepers at a mall demanded lower rents after being forced to shutter all year. Other residents were outraged at property management for high prices for groceries and home essentials during the lockdown. Last month, outrage flared after another doctor died from the coronavirus.
The pressure campaign could last decades – even now, Chinese authorities will detain people who lost relatives in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when the military gunned down peaceful pro-democracy protesters, an event the government still won’t acknowledge.
Despite the risks, Mr Zhang refuses to give up.
“Many families have fallen silent under pressure, which I understand,” he said. “But I won’t be gagged. If I am, my father will have died in vain, and that wouldn’t do him justice.”
Additional reporting by Lya Cai