The Communist Party of China scrambled on Friday to contain political damage from the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, who was initially arrested and abused for daring to give an early warning about the Wuhan coronavirus, but was retroactively recognized as a hero.
The Party is now frantically trying to recast Li as a martyred servant of the noble state, while public anger mounts at how the Chinese government mistreated him in life and in death.
Li’s death was handled about as badly as it could have been, with Party officials crudely stamping out reports of his demise on Thursday, cooking up a phony story that he had been saved at the last moment, and finally admitting he was dead a few hours later.
The South China Morning Post on Friday memorialized Li as a hero and recalled how the Chinese government lied shamelessly about him and seven fellow whistleblowers at every turn:
Li, 34, was an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital. On December 30, 2019, he wrote a post to a closed group of medical school classmates on the WeChat social media site. In the post called “Seven cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market”, he warned about an outbreak of undiagnosed pneumonia at his hospital.
A screenshot of his post was leaked and circulated online on December 31, a day before the local health authority made an official announcement saying that 27 cases of viral pneumonia of unknown cause had been detected.
On January 1, Wuhan police said they were punishing eight people for “spreading rumours.”
It was later revealed that all eight were medical staff.
The bitter irony is that Li was not trying to be a “whistleblower” in the common sense of the word at first. He sent his warning to other doctors – the Chinese government originally portrayed them all as random loudmouths who did not know what they were talking about – and advised them to take sensible precautions. He did not tell them to spread the word. According to Chinese media (always an unreliable source of information about politically sensitive issues) he was actually quite upset when he saw his advisory spreading beyond the half-dozen medical professionals he originally sent it to.
The Wuhan police accused Li of “severely disturbing public order” by “spreading rumors,” and forced him to sign a humiliating statement that promised he would keep quiet, but when he realized just how contagious and dangerous the Wuhan virus is, he kept talking. He did a great deal of this talking from a hospital bed because he contracted the disease in early January after contracting it from a glaucoma patient he treated in his role as an ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital. At the time, the Chinese Communist Party adamantly insisted the virus could not be spread by casual human contact.
The Party has never apologized for how Li was abused after issuing his prescient warning about the Wuhan epidemic, but when news of his death broke and the Chinese public mourned him as a fallen hero, the Party moved quickly to cover its tracks and get a piece of the hero-worship action. Various government officials saluted Li and offered lavish condolences for his loss. Beijing’s top anti-corruption agency announced it would send a team to Wuhan to investigate how the doctor was mistreated by local officials.
And then the Communists did what they always do – silence everyone who did not accept the new political narrative about a heroic Party man wronged by buffoonish local officials:
Since his death was announced, more than half a million internet users have left messages in response to Li’s last post on Weibo. The commentaries are a mixture of loss at his death and anger at the authorities. Many declared him an “ordinary hero”.
On Thursday night and Friday morning, three rapidly trending social media hashtags – “The Wuhan government owes Li Wenliang an apology”, “I want freedom of speech”, and “We want freedom of speech” – were seen millions of times before they were censored.
More angry social media posts accumulated on Friday and were rapidly erased by government censors, as cataloged in another South China Morning Post report:
Angry comments about the official announcement of his death were also deleted, including one that read: “I’ve learned two phrases: political rescue and performative rescue.”
One social media user wrote: “I cannot continue to scroll through Weibo, I am so disappointed with the country. Everyone wears a mask and covers their mouth, but can only shed tears secretly at home as they watch the corpses lying everywhere.”
Some people shared Do You Hear the People Sing?, a song from the musical Les Miserables adopted as an anthem by protesters in Hong Kong.
CNN collected a few more, including angry posts from people who thought the chaos on Thursday was simply the Communist government trying to delay confirmation of Li’s death until after most Chinese citizens had turned in for the night:
Top comments under the Wuhan Central Hospital’s statement about Li’s death included “I’ve learned two words: political rescue & performative rescue” and “Countless young people will mature overnight after today: the world is not as beautiful as we imagined. Are you angry? If any of us here is fortunate enough to speak up for the public in the future, please make sure you remember tonight’s anger.”
Several comments also marked the timing of the announcement. “I knew you would post this in the middle of the night,” wrote one Weibo user.
“You think we’ve all gone to sleep? No. We haven’t,” said another.
Also making the rounds online was an unverified audio recording, purportedly from Li’s mother, saying she and her husband survived the coronavirus and emerged from quarantine only to learn of their 34-year-old son’s death.
Chinese state media labored to refocus all of this public anger on the local officials who are about to be scapegoated.
The Global Times simply asserted that all public outrage boiled down to a demand for Wuhan officials to apologize to Li for his shabby treatment at their hands. Most remarkably, the state-run paper said the only thing people found objectionable about the propaganda antics on Thursday is that Li was kept on life support for too long:
People are grieving and furious, and have begun raising questions about why the hospital gave him emergency treatment for an excessive five hours after his heart had stopped beating.
“Tonight, social consensus has collapsed,” a veteran social affairs observer surnamed Huang said in a WeChat post. The public is demanding justice for authorities in Wuhan, including apologies from local authorities for Li and thousands of patients infected with the coronavirus, she said.
The battle against the deadly virus should be fact-driven and should prioritize the interests of the people. The first thing that should be done is addressing the public outrage, observers said.
The Global Times concluded by quoting a semi-anonymous Beijing journalist who hoped Li’s death would “make people understand that excessive bureaucracy will eventually lead to public opinion crises or the crises concerning people’s livelihood,” another ominous sentiment for the designated fall guys in Wuhan (which, incidentally, is a city larger than New York, not a backwater village administered by rubes who never talk to the home office in Beijing).
The official Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily did not bother mentioning all that unpleasantness with Li getting arrested as a rumor-monger. It just portrayed Li as a Party hero whose tragic death should serve as an example of service to others:
Although it was an individual case, the fact that Li didn’t win his fight against the coronavirus has shown the complexity and difficulty of the battle against the epidemic.
As many of the late Dr. Li’s colleagues are fighting on the front line of the battle, trying their best to save lives, people from all walks of life can actively help pass on love to one another.
At present, China has entered a critical stage of epidemic prevention and control work. The country needs solidarity more than ever to jointly win a battle that it cannot lose, so that its people can be protected against disaster and patients around the country can return to health.
No one can make an accurate prediction about when the battle will end, but everyone knows that only with sufficient confidence can the people win the battle against the novel coronavirus.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese dictator Xi Jinping called U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday morning to express his “full confidence” that China would win the “people’s war” against the coronavirus. The WSJ interpreted this language as Xi signaling that China would not request “large amounts of overseas aid” to battle the epidemic.