The social media page of a heroic doctor who tried to warn of the impending coronavirus pandemic, only to be silenced by the Government before dying of the virus himself is a focal point for anger at China’s perceived failure to get to grips with the crisis. Weibo, China’s version of Facebook, has been also forced to deny deleting messages in support of Dr Li Wenliang – with more users then returning to post more messages of support.
Dr Wenliang, who died of the illness on February 6, was arrested for “spreading false rumours” after issued a warning about the mysterious virus, which he said he had become aware of in December.
The case has prompted outrage across China, not least on Weibo, with hundreds of thousands of people posting on Dr Li’s page in a remarkable display of public anger, with some even calling for people to “rise up”.
Simultaneously, the hashtags “Wuhan government owes Dr Li an apology” and “We want freedom of speech” began trending – before being swiftly censored.
Chinese citizens have launched an online rebellion against Beijing’s handling of COVID-19
The tone of the posts changed as the pandemic unfolded, with some hoping Dr Li’s second son – born after he died – would “carry on his legacy”.
Angela Xiao Wu, an assistant professor in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, said the posts were significant.
She explained: “Mundane reflections and simple greetings as the way to commemorate Dr Li, though different from expressions of anger and indignation, contain their own power to keep the memory and dissonance alive.
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Dr Li Wenliang pictured in hospital before his death
“It forms a sense of communal solidarity that is really outside of the official norm that calls for solidarity around images such as national prowess.”
Over the weekend, large numbers of posts disappeared from the site, prompting one user to ask: “What are you scared of? You won’t even let us see the comments?”
Weibo responded by posting a statement denying it had mass-deleted posts, claiming work to improve moderation had affected some of them, with the large numbers of people who visited his page then unable to comment because the computer algorithm mistakenly thinking they were bots.
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The coronavirus was first spotted in China
Dr Li Wenliang’s post confirming he had the illness has attracted more than a million comments
Most comments had returned by today – but the episode appears to have added fresh impetus.
One user called Dr Li’s page a “most precious spiritual legacy left by Dr Li to future generations” which needed to be preserved “today, tomorrow, this year, next year”.
Another added: “They can take away our comments but they can’t take away our feelings”.
Xi Jinping, China’s President
Dr Li said he began noticing cases in December
The Chinese authorities have long been dogged by claims of a cover-up, and the suggestion that the illness was in circulation long before December 31, when the country first told the World Health Organization (WHO) about it.
A report published in medical journal The Lancet by doctors from Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital previously put dated the first known infection to December 1.
Speaking to Chinese magazine People in an interview which was later censored, Dr Ai Fen said she was reprimanded after telling superiors about about a “Sars-like” virus-related illness affecting patients in mid-December.
She said: “If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand.
Coronavirus cases worldwide
“I would have f** talked about it to whoever, wherever I could.”
In March, the South China Morning Post said although doctors in Wuhan collected samples from suspected cases in late December, red tape had prevented them from confirming their findings for days.
They were also ordered not to disclose any details to the public.
Even on January 11, Wuhan’s health authorities continued to claim there were only 41 confirmed cases.