WUHAN, China – More than 600 people have died. Tens of thousands are infected. Millions are under arrest and the government has tried to silence complaints.
However, what triggered an online revolt in China on Friday, the most violent attack on censorship in almost a decade, began with the death of a man: the doctor who was trying to raise an alarm about the corona virus.
The flood of sadness and rage over the death of the doctor, Li Wenliang – from the same virus that he had denounced – temporarily overwhelmed China's sophisticated censorship and propaganda system. Many on social media called the doctor a martyr and a hero, and government officials, celebrities, and business leaders risked a Communist Party reprimand for joining ordinary people to express frustration and grief.
"Li Wenliang's death has become an emotional focus," said Wang Yu, a Wuhan man in his twenties, and showed the flood of comments about Dr. Li on his cell phone.
"He is a tragic figure in this epidemic and his death has made this tragedy a new extreme," said Wang. Then he hesitated and took his words back. "I am concerned that his death will not be the ultimate in this tragedy."
The doctor's death was a new test for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who was already facing major political problems Trade deals with Washington, recent Taiwan elections, and Hong Kong protest movement – before the Wuhan virus overflowed. In recent weeks, Mr. Xi's talks with foreign leaders to defend China's response to the epidemic that has hit more than 31,000 people and has almost brought the country to a standstill have shifted.
Now the government is in a tug of war over Dr. Li's legacy, which could question Mr. Xi's powerful censorship apparatus.
When the 34-year-old Dr. Li warned about the virus in an online chat room more than five weeks ago, the police used it as an example of what happens to those who fail to comply with official confidentiality requirements. He was summoned by the authorities and forced to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an unfounded and illegal rumor.
After his death on Friday, many Chinese said he was a vivid reminder of the first steps taken to cover up the outbreak.
Many people are connected to the Internet and have plenty of time to deal with the doctor's death. Chinese social media, which was often restless and volatile, agreed, as Dr. Li was in mourning, and eulogies came from all corners of the country. A trend hashtag called for freedom of speech for a few hours.
Beijing was unable to completely end the discussions and turned to the state media to inform Dr. Turn Li into a loyal soldier who adapts to the government's cause. The dispute over the doctor's memory and political implications are reminiscent of what happened after the SARS outbreak, as some said in posts that were quickly erased.
Jiang Yanyong, the retired military doctor who first drew attention to the widespread enumeration of SARS cases, was removed from the official log of that time. In contrast, Zhong Nanshan, the doctor who first identified SARS, was hailed as a loyal servant. When Beijing needed someone to publicly deliver bad news about the corona virus, it turned to Dr. Zhong.
Dr. Li's death also showed how online anger can occasionally spill over the high censorship walls built to suffocate them. China's censors have not been so overwhelmed since 2011 when it became impossible to combat anger and embarrassment over a high-speed accident in Wenzhou. The Wenzhou crash has helped introduce new policies to monitor the Internet more closely.
While many of the lives lost in the coronavirus outbreak have been masked by the numbers, Dr. Li & # 39; s death is given a face and a story to the victims of the epidemic and the medical professionals who are trying to contain it.
In Wuhan, a steel-gray sky hung over the sad day of Mr. Li's death. At the entrance to the hospital where he died, a spontaneous monument of flowers, a black and white photo, and sung cigarettes formed – a substitute for incense sticks. There were few mourners during the day, perhaps because many people in Wuhan are afraid to move too far from home.
"Thank you for your courage," said the message on a bouquet of chrysanthemums, the Chinese flower of mourning. "Heroes never die, thanks," said another.
in the In an interview with Pear Video, Dr. Li's mother sobs from her grief. He was stable for several weeks and could get up and eat, she said, adding that his condition had only worsened in the past two days. She said she couldn't have seen him before he died, and described the broken family he left behind.
"His second child will be born in June," she said, adding that she and Dr. Li's father both had the disease but were recovering. "What happens to his family? Isn't it broken? "
"I and his father were healed, but unfortunately our child didn't make it," she added. “He was 34 years old. It had great potential. He was a very talented boy. He is not like other people who lie – he was faithful to his duties. "
Candle emojis, quotes and pictures by Dr. Li dominated the social media feed. Business leaders and celebrities who were used to spanking political hits for fear of inciting government anger shared their thoughts and condolences. A popular illustration transformed the outline of Dr. Li's surgical mask in barbed wire.
Part of Dr. Li's appeal was his sensitivity to everyone. He loved fried chicken thighs, was annoyed when cherry prices rose too high, and was often stuck when he worked an extra shift in the hospital. Like many others in China, he wrote everything about it online.
Users came up with their old thoughts on the microblogging site Weibo.
"A life that has not been studied is not worth living," he wrote in a characteristic post after considering the origins of the pancakes. "I hope everyone can fulfill their values."
The country's state media released their own memories, and in some cases worked to uncover the story of Dr. Li subtly coopt.
China's National Health Commission did not remind him as Kassandra, who warned of the virus, but as a doctor at the forefront of the response. Although Dr. Li's wish to help his colleagues, he was an ophthalmologist who became ill from a patient he was treating for glaucoma.
"Since the epidemic began, many health professionals have disregarded their own safety, abandoned their small family, faced the difficulties of the larger family, and fought bravely on the front line of the epidemic," the health commission said in a statement. These workers have "made a huge contribution to the protection of people's lives and health, and we strongly respect them."
China's state television station tried to Link Li directly to Mr. Xi's own words about fighting the epidemic. "Defeating this devil virus is the best consolation for the deceased," said the broadcaster in a comment, repeating Mr. Xi's characterization of the disease.
On Friday, Communist Party officials said they would send a team from the powerful anti-corruption committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. To examine Li.
The State Supervisory Committee has "decided to send an investigation team to Wuhan, Hubei Province to conduct a comprehensive investigation of related issues reported by the masses through Dr. Li Wenliang" website.
It is rare for the Communist Party to respond to public outrage so quickly. Several high-ranking officials and state media had joined the choir, which was led by Dr. Li's death mourned. In online statements, the National Health Commission and the Wuhan government said they had expressed their condolences.
The New York Times spoke to Dr. a week before his death Li. "If the officials had previously released information about the epidemic," he told The Times, "I think it would have been much better. There should be more openness and transparency."
"I felt I was wrong, but I had to accept it," he said of his arrest. "Obviously, I acted out of good will."
"I was very sad when so many people lost their loved ones."
The reporting was done by Daniel Victor, Eimi Yamamitsu, Steven Lee Myers, Elaine Yu, Liz Alderman, Denise Grady, Scott Reyburn and Vivian Wang. The research was contributed by Lin Qiqing, Albee Zhang, Elsie Chen and Cao Li.