Chinese people are using “Les Misérables” and “Chernobyl” to mourn coronavirus whistleblower

Silent roar.
Silent roar.
Image: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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The Chinese internet is seeing an overwhelming outpouring of anger and grief for Li Wenliang, a doctor who was among the first to reveal the outbreak of a new coronavirus to others in China. Li died early this morning (Feb. 7), becoming one of the roughly 640 deaths from the virus.

The hospital announcement of his death on social media platform Weibo has drawn more than 370,000 comments, with many expressing the wish that “there will be no lies in heaven.”

Li, together with seven other people who also shared information about a cluster of pneumonia cases in December, was reprimanded for “rumor-mongering” by Wuhan police in early January. Li told his medical school alumna WeChat group on Dec. 30 that there were seven cases of pneumonia in a hospital that resembled SARS, the virus that caused a deadly epidemic in China in 2003. He later clarified that the virus in question had yet to be identified, but was still summoned by police who asked him to sign a letter in which he was told to “carefully reflect on your behavior” and stop “engaging with illegal activities” or else face further action. Li signed “I understand” on the letter.

A week later Li, an opthalmologist, would be infected through a patient. On Jan. 20, when Li had been in hospital for a week, China confirmed for the first time that the deadly virus had spread to cities beyond the initial outbreak zone of Wuhan. China has stepped up its efforts to battle the epidemic, putting more than 50 million people under lockdown, barring them from leaving their cities or even their residential buildings. Li is now widely seen in China as a whistleblower and a hero who should have been listened to, and whom authorities wronged. Responding to public fury around his death, China’s top anti-corruption agency said today it will send a team to probe issues related to Li’s case.

With some messages about Li censored on China’s social networks Weibo and WeChat, users relied on a number of pop culture references to pay homage to Li, especially one popular with Hong Kong’s protest movement—the song Do You Hear the People Sing from a 2012 movie adapted from the Broadway musical Les Misérables. A line from the song, “Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?” is being widely cited on both platforms.

“Has my mouth been sealed? I can still roar silently!” said a Weibo user (link in Chinese) who shared a clip of the song shortly before Li was pronounced dead by the hospital. The song vanished from China’s major music streaming sites last June, when it reappeared as one of the unofficial anthems of Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters, who also sang it during the 2014 democracy protests.

A quote from chemist Valery Legasov, from the show "Chernobyl," was shared on WeChat in tribute to Li Wenliang.
A quote from the show “Chernobyl” was shared on WeChat in tribute to Li Wenliang.
Image: Yiwujiandi WeChat account/screenshot

They also drew on HBO’s Chernobyl, about the 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster, which has struck a chord in China, where many see parallels between Moscow’s handling of that tragedy and Beijing’s handling of the epidemic. A WeChat post dedicated to Li included quotes from one of the show’s major characters, Valery Legasov, a chemist who led the investigation into the disaster:

What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories? In these stories, it doesn’t matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is: “Who is to blame?”

The post has been viewed more than 100,000 times as of writing.

Others turned to the Chinese writer people often turn to in order to make sense of China—Lu Xun, who initially studied to become a doctor in the early 20th century, but then instead chronicled the ills of a country he believed needed “spiritual medicine” more than treatment of physical disease. “Studying medicine cannot cure China,” was a widely shared line from the short story collection Call to Arms, as was another Lu Xun line about “being the light” in the darkness.

Some mourners spun the words Li signed on the letter to police in their tributes, sharing the words: “We don’t understand, we don’t forgive.”

Another widely shared post appeared to show a man carving out the words “farewell to Li Wenliang” in the snow in Beijing.

Meanwhile, censors quickly started to scrub some of more “sensitive” content related to Li, especially comments that directed their anger at the entire Chinese political system. Weibo hashtags such as #I want freedom of speech# and #Wuhan government owes Li an apology# were among those deleted.