China Claims Death of Virus Whistleblower Doctor as WHO Fights ‘Social Media Infodemic’

A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he walks during a snowfall in an empty and shuttered commercial street on February 5, 2020 in Beijing, China.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

One of the eight people in Wuhan arrested for spreading “rumors” about the coronavirus, but retroactively reclassified as a “whistleblower” for sounding an early warning, was a doctor named Li Wenliang. Li, an ophthalmologist, contracted the virus in January while treating an infected patient. 

On Thursday, the Global Times announced Li died from the disease, a development widely taken as evidence the coronavirus is more dangerous than the Chinese government is willing to admit – or, to skeptics coming from an even darker perspective, that Li actually died due to the consequences of physical abuse by the authorities when he was arrested for “spreading rumors.”

Li’s specific “offense” was writing a post on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, advising doctors to wear protective clothing when treating all patients to avoid the rapidly spreading epidemic. He was accused of “making false comments” that “severely disturbed the social order” – the very same thing the Global Times fretted about when applauding the World Health Organization for supposedly endorsing government censorship.

The BBC noted that Li’s full medical history has not been made public, an important detail because the coronavirus is believed to be fatal primarily to the elderly or people with serious pre-existing conditions. Li was 34 years old.

Chinese state media on Wednesday thanked the World Health Organization (WHO) for taking action against a “dangerous social media ‘infodemic’ fueled by false information” about the Wuhan coronavirus.

WHO expressed concerns this week about false information and rumors causing unnecessary panic, while human rights advocates worried about the threat to free speech posed by increased censorship. Critics of the regime in Beijing accused it of concealing vital information about the coronavirus.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times was delighted to have WHO’s support against “rumors” and “false information,” while modestly admitting the Chinese government was a bit less forthcoming than it should have been during the early days of the crisis:

With little expertise, many people are prone to believe every piece of information they get and are likely to panic. Thus, any news, no matter true or false, might spark panic. American historian Daniel Boorstin once wrote, “‘more information’ will simply multiply the symptoms without curing the disease.”

Against this backdrop, the impact of rumor must not be underestimated. If not properly handled, rumors could impede the government’s reasonable measures or even cause social unrest. We should be on guard against those individuals and organizations with racist and terrorist ideas and rumor-mongers may take advantage of the crisis to stir trouble.

Above all, official information must be timely, transparent, and accurate. A country’s government is the most authoritative and trusted source. If information released by the officials meets the public’s needs and expectations, there will be less space for rumors to be disseminated.

In this regard, some problems did occur in the early stages of the coronavirus epidemic and offered some lessons that we can learn from. However, this does in no way mean that the government will let rumors go unchecked. The Chinese government has already made great progress, such as making daily updates on epidemic data.

Boorstin was not talking about literal diseases and symptoms in the passage from his book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, that the Global Times quoted. He was referring figuratively to the “disease” of propaganda and media hysteria, an information disorder the Chinese government has a very acute case of, with symptoms on full display during the coronavirus outbreak. 

The Global Times went on to approvingly cite a Reuters report about 16 people getting arrested for social media posts on the coronavirus in Malaysia, Thailand, India, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, but the report in question was actually skeptical about the rising tide of censorship in Asia and the potential for abuse of “anti-fake news” laws.

As Reuters pointed out, China itself changed course on arresting eight people for spreading “rumors” in Wuhan during the early days of the outbreak because they were wrong about SARS returning, but correct that a dangerous epidemic was spreading.

“Social unrest is one of the most serious consequences a public health crisis may bring. Therefore, the fight against the epidemic is also one against rumors,” the Global Times solemnly concluded, tipping its hand that the Chinese government’s most pressing concern is the rising tide of anger at the Chinese government by citizens dealing with the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus.

China is taking the opportunity of the coronavirus to clamp down hard on news organizations and social media, and a great deal of it has nothing to do with combating “disinformation,” as Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Monday:

Journalists in Wuhan working for Caixin, Phoenix news, and other state-approved news organizations have been ordered by the party’s powerful propaganda department to conduct a review of their coverage after their reports indicated that local officials had likely sought to cover up the extent of the outbreak in its early stages.

Journalists who had interviewed patients or their families, or reported on the large number of patients left to fend for themselves at home due to a lack of resources, and were therefore left out of official statistics, were also targeted for “review” by propaganda officials.

Many estimates have taken the number of undiagnosed, untreated, and uncounted coronavirus patients into account, with the majority of observers convinced that the number of cases likely exceeds 100,000, with deaths also going unreported.

One reporter who declined to be named said propaganda officials had ordered their publication to delete a reference to large numbers of uncounted cases.

RFA noted government censors have completely deleted the social media accounts of two Chinese medical experts for suggesting quicker methods of testing for the coronavirus, implicitly because if those methods were adopted, the number of confirmed cases would rapidly skyrocket. One of the doctors in question believes the true number of infections is closer to 100,000 instead of the current official government tally of 30,000, and she suggested that figure when the official tally was much lower.

“They have to stamp out any sign of criticism online. They reduce your words to trying to overthrow the system, accuse you of using the epidemic to incite subversion of state power, because they feel that this is even more of a threat to [party rule] than the Hong Kong protests last year,” Beijing-based human rights activist Hu Jia told RFA – rather bravely, since he has already been detained once for giving RFA an interview.

Update: Dr. Li Wengliang’s condition was upgraded on Thursday afternoon from “dead” to “clinging to life” after CNN called Wuhan Central Hospital, where he is being treated.

“Multiple state media outlets including Global Times and People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, had earlier said Li had died, but later deleted their reports,” CNN noted. Even the World Health Organization regretfully accepted the news of Li’s death and published a message of condolences, later updating their statement to indicate his exact status is unknown.

Update: After a great deal of confusion throughout Thursday afternoon, it sadly appears that Dr. Li has indeed died. The Chinese government’s bizarre effort to conceal his death, or at least delay reporting of it for as long as possible, has only increased the level of anger in the Chinese public and among the international community at a moment when the Chinese Communists were trying to signal they have the virus under control and travel bans are unnecessary.

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