The army of censors employed by the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus has apparently failed to muzzle the massive outpouring of grief and anger since midnight, when news about the death of Li Wenliang found its way onto social media platforms.
Li, 34, an ophthalmologist who singlehandedly blew the lid off the growing novel coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province, was once detained and reprimanded by the city’s police for “fear-mongering.” This was after he revealed in a WeChat group on December 30 that seven patients showing SARS-like symptoms had been admitted to Wuhan Central Hospital, where he worked.
Li, together with seven other “agitators,” was summoned by the police on January 3 and forced to make a confession, after Wuhan’s government and the National Health Commission sought to hush up the situation on the ground, in orchestrated moves with the media including the state broadcaster China Central Television, to name and shame Li and other “rumormongers.”
Yet before long, what was rejected by party cadres and state media as “pure fabrication” soon turned into fact within the span of a few weeks, when the deadly pneumonic virus, once latent in Wuhan, began to infect people in other provinces, leading to an about-face by cadres and state media, who issued belated alerts as they found it was no longer possible to hide the outbreak.
Li later told reporters that initially he was perturbed by his warning being relayed by netizens as he only wanted to remind his friends to be vigilant, but soon realized that the public’s right to know during a crisis must be respected. “A healthy society must not have only one voice,” Li was quoted as saying.
Li, known across the nation as the first whistleblower to reveal the official coverup, was infected with the virus he warned of at the end of January, apparently from an eye patient he treated. His case was confirmed on February 1 at his hospital and he remained in the intensive care unit as his condition steadily worsened.
On Thursday evening, leading publications in China reported that Li had died, and the China News Weekly and Economic Observer quoted his colleagues as saying that in his last few hours Li drifted in and out of coma, his life sustained with the help of extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation, hinting that his resuscitation could have been delayed.
Wuhan’s government said on Friday morning that it was “saddened” by Li’s death. Li is survived by his wife, who is pregnant with a second child and is also said to be battling for her own life after being infected with the same virus.
Grief and anger started to permeate WeChat and Weibo from late Thursday. Netizens mourned Li’s death and praised him for having the courage to tell the truth. Censors, overwhelmed by the sudden burst of strong emotions, fumbled to respond, as initially they were not given clear instructions on how to respond to the avalanche of posts honoring Li.
The strong expression of sympathy and frustration has morphed into a rare display of the pervasive, seething wrath of the people, as they realize that, yet again, central and local officials often try to downplay or conceal crises and will do anything to restore a semblance of normality. They are angry that a brave young doctor who dared to reveal the truth has died, some suspect because of belated treatment by the authorities, and that the cadres who lied are getting off with a rap on the knuckles.
There is also growing exasperation over how President Xi Jinping has handled the crisis. He has made only a few public appearances in the past two weeks – meeting with World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom on January 28, receiving Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on February 5, and presiding over a Politburo meeting on Wednesday. The top leader has not left Zhongnanhai since the epidemic spread across the nation and appears to be more willing to talk to foreign dignitaries about fighting the disease than to his own people.
Meanwhile, the party’s central discipline and inspection committee said on Friday afternoon that it would dispatch a task force to Wuhan to probe “issues related to Dr Li.”