Chinese dictator Xi Jinping staged a splashy awards ceremony in Beijing on Wednesday, attended by hundreds of high Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, in which he bestowed medals upon citizens who helped face the “extraordinary and historic test” of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic.
Considerable public anger greeted the conspicuous omission of Dr. Li Wenliang, a whistleblower doctor in Wuhan who died of the coronavirus at age 34 in early 2020, a time when the CCP was eager to conceal the extent of the threat posed by the disease.
The snub of Li might have been a surprise to some since the young doctor’s reputation was posthumously rehabilitated and he was declared a hero of the Communist Party.
The Party persecuted Li for attempting to sound an early warning about the coronavirus, detained and subjected to humiliating disciplinary measures for spreading “rumors” and “false information” to other doctors in the city of Wuhan about an alarming new disease with characteristics that resembled SARS.
He contracted Chinese coronavirus while treating a patient in January and died in early February, by which time the Chinese public had grown so restless over his shabby treatment that CCP officials tried to conceal his death. The CCP strove to contain the political fallout from Li’s death by admitting that some mistakes were made in his case and wrote a new propaganda narrative that portrayed him as a wise and brave hero of the Party rather than one of its victims.
The UK Guardian quoted users on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site that stands in for Twitter, who appeared puzzled and angered by his omission from Xi’s big awards ceremony:
“The one who deserves the most recognition is you,” one of the most recent comments on Wednesday read. “Dr Li is the real people’s hero,” another posted a few seconds earlier said. “They win medals on stage. You win medals in our hearts.”
One user wrote: “The state owes you a medal. This medal will not be given to you because if so this country would be admitting it did something wrong and this country can do no wrong.”
“When others represent 1.4 billion people, it is the obedient who are honoured. When we 1.4 billion people represent ourselves, we honour the disobedient,” another posted.
The Guardian noted that Li’s page on Weibo “has become a kind of repository for emotions and reflections,” with guests posting everything from candid conversations with the doctor’s spirit to criticism of the Chinese government.
The purpose of Xi’s award ceremony was to applaud the CCP for supposedly doing the world’s best job of controlling the coronavirus, a narrative that rests on data that “critics have questioned,” as the Guardian delicately put it. That narrative apparently has no room for Li’s story of political persecution and personal sacrifice.
“We quickly achieved initial success in the people’s war against the coronavirus. China is the first major economy to recover since the outbreak of the pandemic and we lead the world in epidemic prevention, control and economic recovery,” Xi said during his hour-long speech at the event.
Deutsche Welle noted on Wednesday that the CCP’s latest propaganda line claims that Li might have faced some “initial pressures,” but “when the government realized this is a deadly disease, they wasted no time.”
Reminding the Chinese public about Li by giving him a posthumous medal might also remind them of what actually happened to the man — his “initial pressures” included the police forcing him to write an apology for trying to warn other doctors about the coronavirus — that would make the new CCP propaganda line very difficult to push.
Li’s family and friends can take some comfort from knowing that not everyone has forgotten him. A Taoist priest in Shandong province on Thursday showed Reuters a collection of 558 memorial tablets he created for people who died fighting the coronavirus, including Li Wenliang as one of the most prominent names. The priest said he “faced some resistance from authorities” when creating his memorial and has “received death threats online.”