Mourning for a medic – Li Wenliang’s death is a new crisis for China’s rulers | China
“IF YOU KEEP being stubborn, fail to repent and continue illegal activities, you will be brought to justice.” So read the warning that police in Wuhan issued to Li Wenliang early in January. Mr Li, an ophthalmologist at a hospital in the city, had been summoned by officers after sharing information through WeChat, a social-media platform, about a new coronavirus that few people then knew about. On the evening of February 6th Mr Li was killed by the pathogen, having been infected by a patient a few days after the police told him to shut up. His death has prompted one of the biggest outpourings of online criticism of the government in years. Officials struggling to contain the virus are also now battling to assuage public anger.
Mr Li is being hailed by Chinese netizens as a whistleblower, but all he did was post a few sentences about the virus on a private forum used by former classmates from his old medical school, most of whom are also practising doctors. On the evening of December 30th he warned them that a group of patients with links to one of Wuhan’s live-animal markets were believed to be infected with the SARS virus that killed hundreds of people during an outbreak in 2002-03, or something similar to it. He suggested that they adopt more stringent precautions against infection in their hospitals, and asked them not to share the information with others.
But screenshots of his message circulated widely and eventually came to the attention of his hospital bosses. They summoned him for a dressing-down, then ordered him to write a letter of self-criticism. The police called him in for questioning three days later and said he had “gravely disturbed social order”. Without naming them, the police publicly accused eight people of spreading “false information”. Mr Li was reportedly one of them. Later in January, as the impact of the virus became more evident and officials abandoned their secretive approach to handling the outbreak, Mr Li and his co-accused were absolved by the government. The supreme court issued a rare rebuke to the authorities in Wuhan for trying to silence them. Chinese and international media were able to interview Mr Li, who by then was lying sick in hospital. The eight became online heroes. Many messages on social media criticised the government’s earlier treatment of them.
Mr Li’s death has fanned netizens’ resentment. Messages commemorating him and lambasting the authorities have blanketed social media. Most people in China are stuck at home as a result of measures implemented by local governments to curb the spread of the virus. So they have plenty of time to vent their feelings online. Many have expressed support for Mr Li’s young child and pregnant wife, and shock that, having mostly killed older people, the virus has taken the life of a 34-year-old. Some have posted links to “Do you hear the people sing”, a song from “Les Misérables” that is often heard at anti-government protests in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Others have quoted from an interview Mr Li gave to Caixin, a Chinese magazine, in which he said: “A healthy society should not only have one voice.” There have been calls for people to light candles in memory.
These are fraught times for Chinese officials. They are caught between a desire to promote awareness of the virus and its dangers, and a fear of anything that could trigger social unrest. Media firms have been ordered to “safely control the temperature” of debate about Mr Li’s death, according to a leaked directive published by China Digital Times, a website based in America. Posts containing the phrase “I want freedom of speech” have disappeared fast. The central government appears to hope that making a scapegoat of Wuhan’s officials will help to restore calm. Hours after Mr Li’s death the Communist Party’s internal discipline-enforcement agency said it was dispatching a team to investigate “questions raised by the masses” in connection with Mr Li. Expect much official praise for the doctor. On Twitter, China’s ambassador to America, Cui Tiankai, said it was unfortunate that “devoted” people such as Mr Li had not at first been “fully understood and appreciated by all”. Less encouragingly, however, he said “this could happen anywhere”.
The party would doubtless prefer that mourning remain confined to cyberspace. It has not forgotten that the nationwide anti-government protests of 1989 were sparked by the death of a sympathetic public figure (a former party chief, Hu Yaobang, who had lost his job for being too reformist). No one is expecting another political explosion of that nature—not least because public gatherings would be very difficult to organise amid widespread fear of contagion by the virus. But like the cases of coronavirus, the party’s problems are multiplying.