A constitutional scholar has been taken away by China’s authorities after writing an open letter to representatives of the country’s legislature, criticising the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and calling for freedom of speech. Zhang Xuezhong was removed from his Shanghai home on Sunday night, according to multiple sources. His letter, posted on WeChat on Saturday and addressed to deputies of the National People’s Congress (NPC) , was widely circulated online as China prepares to convene its most important parliamentary sessions in less than two weeks’ time. “He was taken away on Sunday night. Three police cars came to his house,” said Wen Kejian, an independent political analyst and a close friend of Zhang. Another of Zhang’s friends, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, also confirmed that Zhang had been taken. He said: “He is mentally prepared after his open letter.” In his WeChat post, Zhang, 43, wrote alongside his attached letter: “The best way to fight for freedom of expression is for everyone to speak as if we already have freedom of speech.” Multiple calls to Zhang’s mobile phone and messages to his WeChat account by the South China Morning Post went unanswered. Calls to the Shanghai municipal police bureau were also unanswered. In his strongly worded letter, Zhang – a regular contributor to overseas newspapers and a well-known critic of China’s political and legal system – said that in the absence of a modern constitution, China’s governance was very backward, and “the outbreak and spread of the Covid-19 epidemic is a good illustration of the problem”. China has been transparent about Wuhan outbreak, virus expert says Since first being reported in Wuhan, central China, in late December, the coronavirus has infected over 4.1 million people globally, killing more than 282,000. There were calls for freedom of speech in February, triggered partly by the death of Dr Li Wenliang, who had alerted colleagues in December about a pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan, only to be one of eight people reprimanded by police for “spreading rumours”. Li, who was required to sign a document vowing he would “keep in line in thought and action” with the Communist Party , later died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Zhang said in his letter: “Twenty-two days before the [lockdown to contain the outbreak] 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.” Who was Li Wenliang and how did he become a coronavirus ‘hero’ The letter said the Chinese political system had resulted in a lack of transparency and scrutiny. China has dismissed claims that it mishandled the outbreak , against accusations led by the United States that it had withheld information and allowed the outbreak to escalate into a global pandemic. Beijing has strongly denied a claim – referenced repeatedly by US President Donald Trump – that the outbreak’s origin was linked to virus research lab in Wuhan. “Since January 3, 2020, the [Chinese] foreign ministry had been regularly notifying the US government about the epidemic, but the disease control department was not notifying the people of [China] at the same time. Such an irresponsible attitude towards their people’s safety is rare,” Zhang wrote. “There were few independent professional media to investigate and report on the outbreak, nor did medical professionals provide independent advice to the public … It only shows that the government’s long-term tight control of society and people has almost completely destroyed the organisation and self-help capabilities of Chinese society.” Zhang called on NPC deputies to turn the legislature into a “transitional authority” to create a broadly representative committee empowered to draft a constitution conforming to “modern political principles”. Chinese professor targeted after praising Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary He also urged the NPC to make resolutions to immediately release all political prisoners, end bans on political parties and non-state media, and enshrine that no political party should enjoy the status of a national public service institution. Zhang, who teaches an online constitutional class, was removed from his teaching post at East China University of Political Science and Law in 2013 because of his critical commentary on China’s constitution, and was expelled from the faculty four months later. The university accused him of “forcibly spreading his political views to the school staff and teachers, and also using his position to spread his political views among students”. A defence lawyer for Chinese activists including human rights lawyer Guo Feixiong and civil rights activist Liu Ping, Zhang was stripped of his lawyer’s licence last year after the authorities said he was no longer employed by his law firm.