“Happy New Year, Li Wenliang”: People in China are refusing to forget a coronavirus whistleblower

A makeshift memorial for Li Wenliang, a doctor who issued an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak before it was officially recognized, is seen after…
A makeshift memorial for Li Wenliang, a doctor who issued an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak before it was officially recognized, is seen after…
Image: REUTERS/Stringer
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A year ago, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in the Chinese city of Wuhan, gave one of the world’s first warnings about Covid-19. Then police called him and sternly admonished him. In February, after the virus has snowballed into a global pandemic, Li himself died of the virus.

Now, despite Beijing’s efforts to downplay the collective misery Chinese people experienced last spring during the outbreak’s peak in China, many have gone on online to commemorate Li and express their lingering anger about the government’s handling of Covid-19 after it surfaced in December 2019. The tributes mark ordinary citizens’ refusal to go along with the state-sanctioned memory of China’s coronavirus history.

“Confirmed, seven SARS-type cases,” read the message 34-year-old Li sent to a WeChat group of his medical school alumni on Dec. 30, 2019, according to his post (link in Chinese) on Weibo, published in January. Li wrote that he wanted to warn his classmates about the then mysterious pneumonia cases resembling SARS, a respiratory illness outbreak in 2003 caused by a coronavirus similar to Covid-19. Li later clarified that the virus in question had yet to be identified, but he was still summoned by police who asked him to sign a letter acknowledging he had been told to “carefully reflect on your behavior” and stop “engaging with illegal activities” or else face further action.

Despite Beijing’s efforts to calm public anger, including labeling Li as a “martyr” and having Wuhan police apologize to Li’s family, Li’s Weibo page has become a “digital wailing wall” where people post messages to say how much they miss him and thank him for his courage in speaking up. Some have come to treat Li as a personal confidante, telling him about their wishes and fears for life, or even which movie stars they like. Li’s final Weibo post, in which he announced he had contracted the coronavirus, has received over 1 million messages and over nearly 4 million “like.”

This week, users also flocked to leave messages on Li’s page. “Happy New Year, doctor Li!” appeared in several posts. “The pandemic is far from over after a year, hope you are having a wonderful life in a parallel world,” said one.” Li’s name briefly showed up as one of the most trending topics on Weibo on Wednesday, but later quietly disappeared from the section.

Meanwhile, some used the chance to remember Li’s warning, sent a year ago, as a chance to vent their frustration about Beijing’s push for people to stick to a state-approved coronavirus narrative. China has now largely managed to control the pandemic domestically, and through propaganda organs is trumpeting this success while simultaneously casting doubt on how the virus originated and spread, and how the country dealt with it. One state television dramatization of the coronavirus battle downplayed the role of the many women medical workers on the frontlines, suggesting they were reluctant recruits to the effort. By censoring,  arresting, or prosecuting those who sought to tell or preserve different perspectives, the regime has managed to transform what was once seen as China’s “Chernobyl moment” into evidence that its one-party system is superior to western democracies. “China’s achievements in fighting the pandemic are the best response to the fallacy of ‘China concealing the virus,’ said Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson at China’s foreign ministry on Monday (Dec. 29).

A trending post, that has since been removed, rebuked the remarks from Wang.

“The intention of this article is clear: [Wang’s remarks] are the right collective coronavirus memory people should have…doctors whose collapse was recorded on video, medical workers who kept fighting the pandemic while wearing garbage bags, a medical system that was suddenly overwhelmed—did none of those exist? Who is Li Wenliang? Was there ever such a doctor?” wrote user “PRND21,” in a post that attracted nearly 6,000 shares. “As a Chinese person, and a husband of a Wuhan person, I refuse to forget,” he wrote.

In another post, a user shared the screenshot of the warning letter the police asked Li to sign. “One day, this piece of paper will be displayed in a museum!” wrote the user.

“It is already preserved in a museum that is in people’s hearts,” responded another.