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Outrage over doctor's death puts Beijing on defensive

Public anger mounts on online forums after coronavirus claims Li Wenliang's life

A makeshift memorial to Li Wenliang is seen at an entrance to his workplace, Wuhan Central Hospital, on Feb. 7.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- The death of a Wuhan doctor, who had been detained for "spreading false information" after alerting colleagues about the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak, has triggered an outpouring of grief and anger on Chinese social media. The incident is prompting many in China to question Beijing's crackdown on free speech and the perceived mishandling of the public health crisis, which has claimed more than 600 lives so far.

Some internet users have described it as "the largest moral outcry in China since 1989," the year of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital, died early Friday from the coronavirus infection. He is being hailed as a whistleblower and a hero on social media for "speaking the truth" as netizens in China accuse authorities of incompetence in their attempt to contain the outbreak that saw more than 31,000 confirmed cases globally, most of them in China.

"Our corrupted country does not deserve him," one user wrote on Weibo, a popular microblogging site in China.

Amid public anger, China's National Supervisory Commission -- the country's highest anti-corruption agency -- said on Friday it will send an investigation team to Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located, to conduct a "thorough investigation on issues regarding Dr. Li Wenliang."

"The investigation is perhaps motivated by the central government's concerns over the public's reactions to Li's unfortunate death," said Zhang Baohui, a political-science professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. "It could be a gesture to placate the public."

Li was among the eight doctors summoned to the local police in late December over the messages they had shared with an online chat group, where they warned other medical school classmates of a SARS-like illness at a Wuhan hospital.

A screenshot of his message went viral, and police called him in soon thereafter. Li shared on his Weibo page a police-written statement that he was made to sign admitting to "severely disrupting social order" and promising to halt his "unlawful activities."

A woman wears a surgical mask in Wuhan. China's highest anti-corruption agency will send an investigation team to Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located, to conduct a "thorough investigation on issues regarding Dr. Li Wenliang."   © Xinhua/ Kyodo

As of 5 p.m. Friday Beijing time, the hashtag "Li Wenliang passed away" had drawn 460 million views on Weibo, where messages to mourn his death have flooded the news feed. The Wuhan government and China's National Health Commission have each issued statements to express "deep condolences" over Li's death.

As the overnight internet outrage boiled over to concerns on freedom of speech and authorities' inability to curb the virus from spreading, censorship has taken place over some sensitive discussions. The hashtags "I want free speech" and "Wuhan government owes Dr. Li an apology" had attracted millions of views before being removed by authorities on Friday morning.

Beijing's decision not to cover up Li's death is a sensible one, according to Charlie Smith, a Chinese censorship expert and president of GreatFire, a website that tracks China's online censorship system. "Every Chinese has been in some way affected by the coronavirus. Chinese are upset, frustrated and emotional, and need to express these emotions," he said.

"The authorities are still censoring some posts related to Li Wenliang's death, but they risk creating more anger if they impose blanket censorship on this discussion," Smith said.

Another mistake in controlling the public narrative, following the missteps in dealing with the coronavirus, would risk "undermining [the Communist Party] regime legitimacy, which is based on the notion that the party knows best," said John P. Burns, a professor specializing in Chinese politics at the University of Hong Kong. "Clearly it doesn't, and everyone can see it. As the adage goes, the emperor has no clothes."

In a video shown widely online -- by Beijing-based Sohu; Chaoyang, Liaoning Province-based Pear Video, a Chinese streaming platform; and Phoenix Television -- a woman believed to be Li's mother expressed gratitude for the love shared by the public over her son's death.

"He was not the kind of person who would tell lies, and he was devoted to his duty," said the woman, whose face was not seen in the video.

Li had revealed that both of his parents were diagnosed positive for the new coronavirus in an interview with Caixin in late January.

"Both his father and I recovered, but my child did not make it," the woman in the video said. Li's wife is now pregnant with their second child, and none of Li's close family members were allowed to see him before his death, according to the video.

Wu Qiang, a Beijing-based China watcher and former political science professor at Tsinghua University, believes the investigation would just be a political show.

"They will punish some people, but the real purpose is to divert people's focus from the nation's lack of freedom of speech and other systematic issues that are embedded in the political establishments of [President Xi Jinping's] regime," he said, adding that Beijing fears that Li's death could become a symbol that will brew uprising for civil rights in China.

In a rare critical tone, Chinese state-run Global Times on Friday published a commentary paying tribute to Li, writing that China should "rethink why the doctor's alert was not being appreciated in the beginning," and why "the whistleblower got punished instead."

Still, China watchers are not overly optimistic that Li's death will bring about relaxation in Beijing's control over free speech.

"Even though major media institutions like the Global Times and Caixin magazine have covered Dr. Li's case from critical perspectives, this does not necessarily mean there will be a major and lasting change in the relationship between media and state," said Zhang of Lingnan University. "We need time to have a more reliable conclusion."

Burns at HKU believes that Beijing will continue to step up censorship "to ensure the party's survival in power."

"I expect that the CCP will not learn from this the value of authentic voices of civil society in governing China," Burns said.

Yet, some are more hopeful.

"It could be a turning point for freedom of speech in China because there are so many other questions [stemming from the crisis] that need answering," said Smith of GreatFire. "Once daily life in China returns to normal, we could see a surge of interest in other sensitive issues."

"Li made people realize that without freedom, there is no safety," said Wu, noting that his death could serve as a wake-up call for the tens of millions of Chinese who were willing to sacrifice some of their civil rights in exchange of economic and personal security in China. "The story of an ordinary doctor has challenged the fundamentals of China's authoritarian system."

As many in China give their eulogies for Li on the internet, a quote by the doctor has also gone viral: "There should not be just one voice in a healthy society," Li told Caixin in an interview in late January, after he was diagnosed with the disease.

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