More than a week after the death of Li Wenliang, one of the first “whistle-blowers” to warn of a coronavirus outbreak, the doctor has been almost universally described by the public as a hero in a country where heroes are usually minted in the image of the Communist Party.
Li was widely believed to be one of the eight people reprimanded by public security officers in the early days of the outbreak in December for “spreading rumours” in Wuhan in the central province of Hubei, the epicentre of the epidemic.
He died on February 6 aged 33, after contracting the previously unknown coronavirus.
On his 33rd birthday a few months earlier, Li wrote online that his resolution was to be a simple person, and to maintain peace of mind.
However, a “self-criticism” he was made to write to his employer, Wuhan Central Hospital, and seen by the South China Morning Post suggests how much he may have suffered.
“I compared [my behaviour] with the Communist Party’s constitution, party regulations and the spirit of a series of speeches [by party leaders], reflected on myself, and made profound self-criticism,” Li, a party member, wrote in the statement dated December 31.
“As an individual, I am not authorised to release related information and inaccurate information. I should keep in line in thought and action with the party’s Central Committee.”
Repeated attempts to contact Li’s family to confirm the statement were unsuccessful but his friends and associates who talked to the doctor before his death confirmed that such a document existed.
Li wrote the letter one day after he posted a message to a closed group of medical school classmates on the WeChat social media site. In the post called “Seven cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market”, he warned about an outbreak of undiagnosed pneumonia at his hospital.
On the same day, Wuhan health authorities made an official announcement saying that 27 cases of viral pneumonia of unknown cause had been found.
Li did not know whether the virus was actually Sars. In an hour he corrected it, explaining that although it was a coronavirus, like Sars, it had not been identified yet.
However, a screenshot of his initial post was leaked and soon shared widely. The next day, on New Year’s Day, Wuhan police said on their official microblog account that eight people had been punished for “spreading rumours”. It was later reported that the eight were medical staff and included Li.
It was not clear how Li was treated by the police. But the wording of a police document dated January 3 was stern: “If you are stubborn and refuse to repent, and continue to carry on [with your] illegal activities, you will be punished by law!” The document with Li’s signature and fingerprint was later uploaded to Li’s Weibo account.
However, it was not the first time Li was criticised. Hospital inspectors reprimanded him on December 31. In his apology to hospital authorities, Li said he was not aware of the “serious consequences” of his post message.
“I didn’t recognise the danger of the possible outcome of the information leak at the era of internet … The rumours could cause panic, diminish the credibility of the government and disrupt social order,” he wrote, saying his actions caused “adverse impacts on the health and propaganda departments of government”.
“In the future, I will never release suspected illegal information, I will strictly follow the law, and I will never cross the line,” he wrote. “I will always try to be politically sensitive.”
The tragedy of Li has triggered an immediate outpouring of grief and anger across the world, and partly prompted a backlash over Beijing’s crackdown on “online rumours”, with some pushing for freedom of speech.
While there have been questions online about whether Li qualified as a hero, given that he only alerted his friends of the disease, his case is being held up in the cause of transparency, forcing state media and even Chinese officials to recognise Li’s contribution.
“Although the title of hero was granted by the public, we cannot overlook the public opinion behind the wide recognition,” a commentary published on Monday on Shanghai Observer, a website of the party-run Liberation Daily, said.
“People don’t care if [he] was the first whistle-blower. What they care about is those who are loyal to the people and who answer their concerns.
“The reason that Li caused a public sensation is that he is an ordinary man doing what everyone would do. Making him a hero is [about] protecting their own rights.
“Although Dr Li Wenliang died, discussions about him will continue … Hopefully these discussions will lead to valuable social advances.”
Zhong Nanshan, an 83-year-old epidemiologist who gained fame for combating the Sars epidemic in 2002-03, wept when he spoke about Li in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday.
“Most people think he’s the hero of China,” Zhong said. “I’m so proud of him … He told people the truth at the end of December.”
In an interview with the BBC on Sunday, Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Britain, also paid tribute.
“Doctor Li will be remembered as a hero and will be remembered for his bravery and contribution to the fight of this disease,” Liu said.
But, in an apparent attempt to distance Beijing from the criticism, Liu also countered interviewer Andrew Marr’s suggestion that Li was reprimanded by “Chinese authorities”, insisting that the action was carried out by “local authorities”.
The day after Li’s death, the central government’s highest anti-corruption agency, the National Supervisory Commission, announced that a team would be sent to Wuhan in Hubei province to conduct a “comprehensive investigation” into the issues the public had raised about the treatment of Li. The team arrived the next day but there has been no update on the inquiry.
Since Li’s death was announced, more than half a million internet users have left messages in response to Li’s last post on his Twitter-like Weibo account, with comments reflecting a mix of loss at his death and anger at the authorities. Many declared him an “ordinary hero”.
Hundreds of mainlanders, led by academics, have signed an online petition calling on the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, to protect the public’s right to freedom of speech and to make February 6 a national day for free speech.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said that whether Li would be remembered officially would depend on how well entrenched President Xi Jinping remained after the coronavirus crisis was over.
“The default assumption is that Xi will remain firmly in control, in which case Dr Li will be written out of history and his memory suppressed if not steadily erased,” Tsang said.
“A hero not the creation of the Chinese Communist Party is deemed by the party as subversive and thus cannot be tolerated.”
The difference between a welfare state and a totalitarian state is a matter of time.