The Chinese government has attempted to eradicate an unprecedented outpouring of grief and anger following the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn the world about the growing threat from the coronavirus outbreak.
In the hours after Li’s death from coronavirus was confirmed Thursday, Chinese citizens staged a rare collective protest online criticizing the government and officials for failing the doctor by silencing him and ignoring the threat posed by the coronavirus, which has now killed at least 637 people in China and infected at least 31,000 more.
Mentions of Li’s death flooded WeChat and Weibo, two of China’s most popular social media sites. Messages of grief quickly gave way to anger, with the hashtags “Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want the freedom of speech” quickly trending on Weibo.
As well as directly referencing Li’s death, online critics quoted the song “Do You Hear the People Sing,” referenced Article 35 of China’s constitution that provides for freedom of speech, and shared sections of the poem “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
“This is not the death of a whistleblower. This is the death of a hero,” said one comment on Weibo.
But within hours, the government had wiped clean much of the anger and critical voices, part of its widespread campaign to silence any voices critical of the government’s response to the virus outbreak, particularly its delayed reaction to initial reports coming out of Wuhan in December.
The government issued censorship instructions to the media in the wake of Li’s death, warning them that “it is strictly forbidden for reports to use contributions from self-media, and sites may not use pop-up alerts, comment, or sensationalize.”
It added that outlets should “not set up special topic sections, gradually withdraw the topic from Hot Search lists, and strictly manage harmful information,” according to a leaked copy of the alert seen by China Digital Times, a California-based group that monitors China’s online space.
The government even tried to control the news of Li’s death, likely knowing the anger and outrage it would cause.
Several state-run media outlets, including the People’s Daily and the Global Times, broke the news of Li’s death at around 10:30 p.m. local time, news that was quickly picked up by international media.