Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was among a group of people who sounded the alarm about the virus in late December, only to be reprimanded and censored by the authorities in central Hubei province. The death of a whistleblowing doctor whose early warnings about China’s new coronavirus outbreak were suppressed by the police unleashed a wave of anger at the government’s handling of the crisis — and bold demands for more freedom.
After Li’s death was confirmed, the 34-year-old was lionized as a hero on social media, while officials were vilified for letting the epidemic spiral into a national health crisis instead of listening to the doctor. But many also used the occasion to demand more liberties in the Communist Party-ruled country, with the hashtags “I want freedom of speech” and “we demand freedom of speech” appearing on Twitter-like Weibo before being censored.
“Chinese people are only allowed one kind of freedom, and that is the freedom given by the country and the Communist Party,” commented one Weibo user.
“But clearly it is us who should be the masters of this country’s laws.”
Local authorities in Hubei and its capital Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the crisis, had already faced rare, uncensored criticism online in recent weeks for initially downplaying the magnitude of the outbreak.
While the World Health Organization and some experts have heaped praise on China, saying it took decisive steps to try to contain the virus, critics say precious time was lost by the early inaction of the local government.
Hubei and Wuhan officials held key political meetings in the first weeks of January. The death toll and number of cases only began to soar afterwards, going from one fatality on January 11 to more than 630 barely four weeks later.
Li, who was diagnosed with the virus on February 1, said in a Weibo post in late January that local police had forced him to sign a statement agreeing not to commit any more “law-breaking actions”.
He said police had summoned him after he had seen test results from some patients suggesting SARS in December, and decided to remind his colleagues in a group chat to take stronger precaution measures.
After the Wuhan Central Hospital confirmed on Weibo early Friday that Li had joined the growing number of victims, mourners left hundreds of thousands of eulogies.
“Everything in the world can be suppressed except grief,” a blogger said on the Chinese website Baidu.
– ‘Strong emotions’ –
The public sadness appears to have caught the Chinese government’s usually tightly-controlled propaganda apparatus on the back foot.
State broadcaster CCTV and the Global Times tabloid had reported his death on Weibo late Thursday but they deleted their reports soon after the news became the top search item on the platform with 12 million hits.
The hospital later issued a statement saying Li was undergoing emergency treatment before confirming his death early Friday.
Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said authorities likely ordered the delay to show there was an effort to save the doctor “because there was such an outpouring of emotion and they wanted to give a sense of hope”.
“Clearly, there was a effort nationally to channel these very strong emotions from across the country,” Yang told AFP.
But the government also did not want to “let it get out of hand” and instead move the grief in the direction that the leadership wants it to go, he said.
The party wants to show that only under its leadership can the country overcome the crisis, he said.
President Xi Jinping has called the fight against the virus a “people’s war”, while China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, on Friday described Li’s work as part of “our joint efforts fighting against” the virus.
In recent weeks, censors had allowed Weibo users to criticise Hubei officials — a move that placed attention on them instead of the central government.
China’s anti-graft agency said Friday it was sending investigators to Wuhan to look into “issues” related to Li.
After Li’s death, criticism went far beyond the anger directed at local officials, with users questioning the nature of the Communist state itself.
– ‘Don’t worry’ –
Some Weibo users used historical references, pointing to Wuhan as the birthplace of the 1911 revolution that ended thousands of years of imperial rule in China.
“The Qing dynasty has been dead for 100 years, how can there still be such bloody tragedies?” wrote one user.
By Friday morning, multiple hashtags related to freedom of speech and Li’s death had been scrubbed from Weibo’s search results.
“If they delete it, post it again. I oppose the criminalisation of speech,” wrote a Weibo user in a post that had been reshared thousands of times.
In one of his final Weibo posts, Li wrote from the intensive care unit that he was having trouble moving and breathing.
“Seeing all the support and encouragement from my online friends, my mood has become more relaxed,” Li said.
“Please don’t worry everyone, I will actively cooperate with the treatment, and fight to be discharged soon!”
Before going down himself in the line of duty, Dr. Li faced a harsh reprimand from representatives of the Chinese Communist Party. Dr. Li was accused of spreading rumors and illegally threatening the social order with his tweets and posts and personal interventions. Nevertheless, Dr. Li was soon vindicated in calling attention to the coming plague.
It did not take long before the appalling force of the illness demonstrated that Dr. Li was anything but a wayward conspiracy theorist. Instead, the evidence proved him right even as it proved his powerful detractors were both wrong and negligent in the face of a genuine menace.
Dr. Li Wenliang is a martyr. It remains to be seen, however, how far the shadow of Dr. Li’s martyrdom will be cast.
The Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, is cutting a broad and deep swath though epidemiological history with uncertain impact on the viability of many families, communities, institutions, economies, and even countries starting with the most heavily populated nation on earth. Many fates are hanging in the balance, not the least of which is that of the communist government that has ruled China since the Maoist Revolution brought it to power in 1949.
The death in Wuhan of Dr. Li Wenliang on 7 February has become a flash point for popular criticism of the Chinese Communist Party led by General Secretary Xi Jinping. Dr. Li wrote to members of his medical school alumnus group suggesting that some significant action should be taken in response to the appearance of SARS-like symptoms that suddenly afflicted his patients.
For sending out this unauthorized communication, Dr. Li was summoned along with seven other supposed offenders to the Public Security Bureau. There he was warned by police to stop “making false statements.” He was ordered to cease and desist “spreading rumors,” and “acting illegally to disturb social order.”
Dr. Li signed a form indicating he would refrain from continuing to do what he had been accused of doing. The chastised professional returned to his medical practice. He took his own advice and began treating patients exhibiting signs of the new illness. He himself soon died from COVID-19 when it was still known as 19-nCoV.
Is Twitter’s permanent deplatforming of the Zero Hedge web site a North American version of the police intervention in China with the goal of silencing Dr. Li? Is the censorship of the Internet in the name of opposing “conspiracy theorists” repeating the Chinese Communist Party’s effort to silence Dr. Li?
Is Dr. Li to be appropriately understood as a Chinese version of a “conspiracy theorist”? How different was his treatment for allegedly “spreading rumours” and “acting illegally to disturb social order” from the treatment of those in the Occident who have been deplatformed, smeared and professionally defrocked for attempting to speak truth to power?