(Bloomberg) — A Chinese doctor who was initially sanctioned for warning about the deadly Wuhan coronavirus outbreak in early January has died, stoking fresh anger online at the Communist Party-led government.
For hours, the status of the doctor, Li Wenliang, had been unclear after earlier reports of his death on Chinese social media were deleted and replaced by messages saying he was being treated. Around 3 a.m. Beijing time, Wuhan Central Hospital said that Li was dead “after all efforts to save him failed.”
“Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at our hospital, had unfortunately been infected when he worked on fighting against the coronavirus outbreak,” the hospital said on the Chinese social platform Weibo. He was 34, according to reports in Chinese media.
The Wuhan doctor became well-known after he made a December social media post warning about a SARS-like illness. In the weeks that followed, the virus exploded into the epidemic that has sickened more than 25,000, halted travel across parts of China, and led to the mass quarantine of Wuhan, a city of more than 10 million.
But days after Li’s warning on social media, he was reprimanded by police for rumor-mongering online, according to his social media account. He later announced via social media that he had been infected with coronavirus.
Responding to the outrage on Friday, China’s top disciplinary body, the National Supervisory Commission, said in a statement that it would send a team to Wuhan to investigate “issues people reported involving Dr. Li Wenliang.” It was approved by the Communist Party Central Committee headed by President Xi Jinping.
Li’s warning, and the police reprimand, have raised questions within China about whether Communist Party authorities could have done more earlier to stop the spread of the infection. His final hours sparked a confusing episode that only reinforced the narrative that Chinese officials were more concerned about stage-managing the message rather than giving transparent updates about developments related to the virus.
The doctor’s death was announced on social media by a Chinese state media-affiliated publication, only to see the posts deleted and replaced by reports that he was still alive. Then hours later he was finally reported dead again by the hospital where he worked.
Chinese netizens accused government authorities of hiding the truth by conjuring up a fake miracle that Li was still alive. The hashtag “I Want Freedom of Speech” picked up amid public anger while these posts were being constantly censored and deleted on Weibo.
Many also typed out the first line of the Chinese national anthem — “Arise! All those who don’t want to be slaves!” — and shared the song “Do You Hear the People Sing,” from “Les Miserables,” a musical about people who have taken to the streets to protest against tyranny.
Li Yuchen, an individual blogger who wrote a widely shared piece chronocling Li’s experience, was invited to have a conversation with the police, which he said lasted for 8 hours. According to his account of the experience posted on Chinese messaging service WeChat, police asked him “Do you love your country?”
The drama started to unfold at around 9:30 p.m. Thursday night, when a verified neurosurgical doctor at Wuhan Union Hospital first revealed Li’s passing on Weibo in a now-deleted post.
At around 10 p.m. local time, state-run media outlets received a notice to strictly regulate coverage of Li’s condition, avoid issuing alerts and refrain from any commentary, according to a person familiar with the situation.
The Global Times, which is affiliated with the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, posted at 10:44 p.m. Thursday that Li had died. “Global Times’ reporters learned from several sources that Wuhan Central Hospital’s Dr. Li Wenliang died of pneumonia infected by the novel coronavirus tonight,” the outlet said in a post accompanied by a somber image of candles.
Bloomberg News also reported Li’s death, citing a person familiar with the matter and Chinese media.
Roughly an hour after the Global Times’s initial report, the post was deleted from two of its Weibo accounts. Another message mourning the doctor by Hu Xijin, the Global Times’s editor-in-chief, was also removed.
‘Must Be United’
Li’s death rapidly became a trending topic on the Chinese social-media platform Weibo around midnight local time, with the hashtags #DoctorLiPassedAway and #LiWenliangPassedAway attracting hundreds of millions of views.
Around 1 a.m. Beijing time, Hu from the Global Times suggested Li was alive and efforts were being made to save him.
“We wish a miracle of life could happen,” Hu said in a new post.
The hospital said Li died at 2:58 a.m. Beijing time, or 1:58 p.m. in New York.
After his death, the government appeared to make an effort to ease the public anger. A commentary by state-run CCTV said Li’s experience “reflects the shortcomings in our epidemic control and response” and “we need to learn from that.”
Wuhan’s government, which initially sanctioned Li, called his death unfortunate.
“We express our deep condolences and regret,” it said. “We pay tribute to him for standing on the frontline to fight against the epidemic and express sincere condolences to his family.”
(Updates with government statement in sixth paragraph. An earlier version corrected the name of the Global Times editor.)
–With assistance from Adveith Nair, Linly Lin, Jacob Gu and Belinda Cao.
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