The doctor who was one of the first to sound warnings about the Wuhan coronavirus has died.
Li Wenliang, 34, was one of eight whistleblower doctors to be summoned by police in Wuhan for ‘spreading rumors’ in early January.
Immediately after being made to sign a confession, Dr Li went right back to fighting the epidemic on the frontlines at the Wuhan Central Hospital before falling ill and eventually testing positive for the coronavirus on Feb 1.
His wife and parents are reportedly also infected with the coronavirus. He also leaves behind a five-year-old daughter.
— Michael Anti (@mranti) February 6, 2020
An inconvenient death
Earlier reports that Dr Li had died at 9.30 pm on Thursday unleashed a torrent of grief and anger that inundated Chinese social media in a way that took the government by surprise.
Hashtags like #LiWenliangHasDied, #WuhanGovernmentOwesLiWenliangAnApology, and #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech, quickly became trending topics before being scrubbed by Weibo.
On WeChat, news of Dr Li’s death flooded timelines and dominated the discussion in groups.
This is a big moment in China. I've never seen so much raw emotion on WeChat from so many. An outpouring of grief over the death of Li Wenliang and tributes to his courage, mixed with seething anger at what can only be described as the system.
— Simon Rabinovitch (@S_Rabinovitch) February 6, 2020
Shortly afterwards, reports on Dr Li’s passing by state media outlets including People’s Daily and Global Times were deleted, only to be replaced by new updates around midnight that he was being resuscitated by extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECOM).
A tweet from the World Health Organization was also deleted. “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Li Wenliang,” read the tweet. “We all need to celebrate work that he did.”
Screenshots of Wechat messages between people ostensibly working at the hospital indicated that the order to resuscitate the doctor came from certain “leaders” because the earth-shattering news of his death would be inconvenient and “troublesome.”
In another screenshot that appeared to have come from a propaganda bureau directive, media outlets were ordered not to send the story out with a push notification, and to stick closely to the approved text. Editors were also ordered to “control the heat” of the debate, to gradually phase the story out of trending topics and to “strictly control harmful information.”
As netizens vowed to stay up all night hoping against hope, word eventually came from the hospital that resuscitation had failed and Dr Li passed away at 2.58 am.
“I knew you’d wait till the wee hours of the morning to announce this,” read the most upvoted comment.
“Did you think we were all sleeping? We haven’t,” read another.
This sketch of li wenliang one of the many things about him that are blowing up online. His death is crystallizing so much anger and frustration pic.twitter.com/lxlOwj7OhO
— Bill Bishop (@niubi) February 6, 2020
The making of a martyr
In a warning issued by the Wuhan Public Security Bureau (PSB), Dr Li was charged with “spreading untruths about seven SARS cases at the Huanan Seafood Market”.
“The PSB hopes you can actively cooperate, heed the advice of the police, and stop your illegal behavior. Can you do this?”
“Yes, I can,” writes Dr Li.
“We hope you can calm down and reflect. We hereby solemnly warn you: If you choose to remain obstinate and unrepentant, and continue your unlawful behavior, you will meet the full force of the law! Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand,” replies Dr Li.
With the court of public opinion firmly on the side of Dr Li and the other whistleblower doctors, the Supreme People’s Court took the unusual step of criticizing the Wuhan PSB in an article published on Jan 28.
The very next day, the Wuhan PSB took to Weibo to explain that as the transgressions of the eight whistleblowers were “very light”, the PSB only “educated” and “criticized” them, and did not fine or detain them in any way.
As Hubei continues to battle a surge in confirmed coronavirus cases, netizens are hailing Li Wenliang as a hero and demanding for justice.
“We just have two demands,” wrote Beijing-based film critic Tan Fei. “First, declare Dr Li Wenliang as a martyr. Second, relevant authorities need to make an official apology to Dr Li and the other seven whistleblowers, and to rescind their warning.
“Please publish the real time of Dr Li Wenliang’s death and the real information of resuscitation efforts. Don’t try to construct more lies after his death in an attempt to sooth the people’s anger,” read another viral post that has been shared close to 70,000 times.
“He almost saved China, but in the end, he did not manage to save himself,” wrote investigative reporter Wang Zhi’an.
— 王局志安 (@wangzhian8848) February 6, 2020