They released videos of Les Misérables' Do You Hear the People Sing. They invoked Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, which provides for freedom of speech. They tweeted lines from a poem: "For whom the bell rings, it rings for you."
The Chinese public staged an online revolt following the death of a doctor, Li Wenliang, to warn of a mysterious virus that has since killed hundreds of people in China, infected tens of thousands, and forced the government to correct many of the 1 4 billion people in the country.
Since late Thursday, people from diverse backgrounds, including government officials, prominent business people, and ordinary online users, have posted numerous messages expressing their grief over the doctor's death and anger at the police's silence after they told her Share knowledge about the new corona virus. It has triggered a nationwide soul search under an authoritarian government that allows little dissent.
"I haven't seen my WeChat timeline filled with so much disappointment and outrage," wrote Xu Danei, founder of a social media analytics company, about the WeChat messaging platform.
"Tonight is a monumental moment for our collective conscience," he wrote in a later post.
Although there are some outspoken dissidents in China, their numbers have shrunk as the Communist Party, led by Xi Jinping, has repeatedly targeted lawyers, journalists, and businessmen over the past seven years.
In this highly censored society It is rare for ordinary people to make demands and openly express their anger towards the government. Officials and managers of large companies are even less likely to show feelings that can be interpreted as dissatisfaction with the state.
After speculation about Mr. Li's death swirled around the Internet on Thursday evening, the Communist Party's propaganda machine was in full swing trying to control the embassy. But it didn't seem to be as effective as in the past.
The inundation of online messages from sad, angry and grieving people was too much for the censors. The government even seemed to recognize the enormity of the country's emotions and dispatched a team to "investigate Dr. Li Wenliang-related issues reported by the public," but without details.
For many people in China, the doctor's death shook pent-up anger and disappointment at how the government mishandled the situation by not sharing information earlier and silencing whistleblowers. It also seemed to online citizens that the government hadn't learned any lessons from past crises. It continued to suppress online criticism and investigation reports that provided important information.
Some users of Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform, say the doctor's death was well received because he was an ordinary person who had to admit that he did wrong to do the right thing.
Dr. Li was reprimanded by the police after he raised concerns about the virus on December 30 in a social messaging app with classmates from the medical school.
Three days later, the police forced him to sign a statement that his warning was "illegal behavior."
The doctor finally went public with his experiences and gave interviews to help the public better understand the spreading epidemic.
"He didn't want to be a hero, but for those of us in 2020, he had reached the limit of what we can imagine a hero to be," read a Weibo post. The post is one of many that users claim to have written out of shame and guilt for not opposing an authoritarian government, as Dr. Li did.
Many people posted a variation of a quote: "Whoever keeps the firewood for the masses is the one who freezes to death in wind and snow." The original version of the saying came from the Chinese writer Murong Xuecun about seven years ago when he and some Friends raised money for the families of the political prisoners.
It was written to remind people that it was in their interest to support those who dared to defy authority. Many of these people were figuratively frozen to death because fewer people were willing to publicly support these divergent figures.
The atmosphere was very different on Thursday evening. When the confusion about Dr. Li's fate increased, people accused the authorities of trying to delay the announcement of his death.
The grief was so widespread that it appeared at unlikely angles.
"You refuse to listen to your whistle, your country has stopped ticking, and your heart has stopped beating," wrote Hong Bing, Shanghai office manager for the official Communist Party newspaper, People & # 39; s Daily, for a moment on their timeline through WeChat news platform. "How much money do we have to pay to make you and your whistling sound louder to reach every corner of the east?"
Both the Chinese and English-language People’s Daily Twitter accounts tweeted that Mr. Li's death had resulted in “national grief”. Both accounts deleted these messages before they were replaced by more neutral, official-sounding posts.
The Shandong Province Law Enforcement Bureau released a portrait of Mr. Li in two sentences that were circulating online: “Heroes do not fall from the sky. It's just normal people who went forward. "
Wang Gaofei, the managing director of Weibo, who carries out many of the orders handed down by China's censors, considered what lessons China had learned from the death of Dr. Li should pull. "We should be more tolerant of people who publish" untrue information "that is not malicious," he said in a post. "If we can only speak what we can guarantee, we will pay the prices."
Even the official WeChat report from a quantum physics blog wrote an article titled "Li Wenliang, you only went to the" parallel universe "."
On social media, many people asked the government to Make Li a martyr and hold a state funeral attended by the country's leaders.
"It is the first time that a person's name is displayed on my screen," wrote lawyer Zheng Wenxin. "It is the first time that this nation is holding a state funeral for a doctor."
"RIP our hero," wrote Fan Bao, a well-known tech investor, on his WeChat timeline.
For some, it was a lesson about the importance of freedom of speech that the government didn't understand. Beijing has tightened its censorship on investigative reports that uncovered wrongdoings by officials who underestimated and underplayed the corona virus threat. China's leaders have stepped up efforts to focus reporting on positive developments in the fight against the epidemic.
The hashtag # wewantfreedomofspeech # was created on Friday morning at 2 a.m. on Weibo and had over two million views and over 5,500 posts at 7 a.m. It was deleted from the censorship along with related issues, such as the statement that the Wuhan government Dr. Li owed an apology.
"I love my country deeply," read a post on this topic. "But I don't like my country's current system and style. It covered my eyes, ears and mouth."
The author of the post complained that he could not access the Internet outside the Great Firewall. "I held back a long time. I think we all held back a long time. It broke out today."
Talking about freedom of expression on the Chinese Internet is taboo, although it is enshrined in the constitution. So it's a little miracle that The free speech hashtag has survived more than five hours.
The country's senior executives were less obtuse, but shared the same views online.
"It is time to think about the deep-seated, stable assets – everything that harms everyone," wrote Wang Ran, chairman of the investment bank CEC Capital, about Weibo. "We all want stability," he asked. "Do you become more stable if you cover each other's mouths while walking a tightrope?
Gao Xiaosong, a senior executive at Alibaba, announced on his Weibo account that he hopes that China will pass a whistleblower protection law that appears to refer to American law so that more people can speak. "REST IN PEACE. Our hero. Thank you," he wrote about Dr. Li.
There are suggestions for people in China to ring their car horns at 9:30 p.m. on Friday in the doctor's memory.
They also requested that a hashtag of the two questions that the police Dr. Li said in a statement, "Can you stop your illegal behavior?" And "Do you understand that if you don't do that you will be punished?" to stop such behavior? "
Dr. Li was forced to reply in writing, "I can" and "I understand" – and put his red thumbprint on it.
It is too early to judge whether the anger and frustration on the Internet will matter. There has been significant public outrage in some tragedies in the past, including an earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008 and a train accident in 2011. In these cases, however, it subsided.
Some people in China are more hopeful this time. In recent tragedies, many people have been able to stay away from them, said Hou Zhihui, a commentator who has been detained twice for speaking online. "But this time nobody can stay out. It is impossible."