The physician in Wuhan, China, who sounded the alarm about a budding pandemic only to be rebuked by Chinese authorities, continued to elicit an outpouring of admiration as the one-year anniversary of his death approached.
Dr. Li Wenliang died February 7, 2020, after contracting the illness he warned classmates about in an online chat room. Before his death, he emerged as a hero to many Chinese citizens after stories of his treatment by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to circulate on social media. In early January 2020, Li was forced by police to sign a statement denouncing his warning about what became known as COVID-19 as an unfounded and illegal rumor.
“You were wronged and people remember,” said a comment on Li’s Weibo blogging page in early January 2021, according to a report by the South China Morning Post newspaper. Li’s Weibo page was referred to by some commenters as “China’s wailing wall” because many people share their frustrations there about hardships caused by the pandemic.
“Dr. Li, it’s been a year since the reprimand,” another commenter wrote. “Hope there won’t be any reprimand in heaven.”
Li became an international symbol of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) lack of transparency over the origins and severity of the virus. The government struggled to explain why he was reprimanded for warning others about a new and potentially lethal virus.
Soon after Li’s death, PRC officials tried to stifle public criticism that they mismanaged the outbreak in Wuhan, and those efforts continue, The New York Times newspaper reported in 25 January 2021.
The PRC has recently deployed “an army of censors to scrub the internet of critical coverage of the Wuhan outbreak,” The New York Times reported.
The efforts persist even though the government retracted its reprimand of Li. Hours after he died, Beijing sent investigators to Wuhan to look into the case. Almost two months after Li’s death, police in Wuhan revoked the reprimand and apologized to his family, the South China Morning Post reported.
Censorship efforts, however, were unrelenting as the anniversary of his death approached.
Censors erased from Chinese websites terms including “first anniversary” and “whistleblower,” and a recent propaganda directive banned coverage of the anniversary of the Wuhan outbreak.
Chinese journalists told The New York Times they were told to avoid drawing attention to the anniversary and abandon plans to interview people who lost relatives to the coronavirus.
The CCP also made sure journalists and citizens were paying attention to its censorship directives when it sentenced Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old citizen journalist, to four years in prison in December 2020 for chronicling the outbreak in China.
Her live reports were widely shared on social media, and she was fiercely critical of the PRC for its virus containment and the silencing of whistleblowers. She was officially convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” CBS News reported.