Why Dr Li Wenliang’s death struck a chord with Chinese people

February 17, 2020 17:12
The death of a whistleblower doctor has stirred grief and anger in China amid the coronavirus crisis. There are three elements: people’s sympathy for the doctor, their respect for his courage, and their anger about the officialdom, the author says. (AFP)

The death of Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist with the Wuhan Central Hospital who was among the very first to warn of the Wuhan novel coronavirus outbreak, remains a hot topic in China.

I believe there are three elements which can explain why the mainland people are taking Li’s death so hard: their sympathy for him, their respect for his courage, and their anger about the officialdom.

Li brought to light a SARS-like disease caused by an unknown coronavirus, warning his friends on social media about the looming epidemic, on Dec. 30 last year.

His message began to circulate in his WeChat group, which consisted of some 150 of his former classmates at the medical school of the Wuhan University.

Unfortunately, Li, along with seven other doctors, were labeled as “rumor-mongers” and reprimanded by the local authorities.

As it turns out, the so-called “rumor-mongers” were actually “whistleblowers” who were trying to sound the alarm on the deadly pneumonia outbreak out of good intentions.

And if the mainland authorities had respected the public’s right to know, the Wuhan pneumonia would probably not have spread to such a wide degree, which explains why people are so sympathetic toward Li.

Second, mainland netizens are holding Li in high regard because he is much admired for having the courage to take the political risks and tell the truth about the disease in a society where the public is routinely denied information transparency regarding an epidemic, and where speaking one’s mind could present a danger.

The reverberations of Li’s death aren’t just confined to people's sympathy and admiration for him, it has also prompted people to reflect on the systemic failure of mainland society laid bare by the Wuhan epidemic.

The mainlanders are speaking out loudly this time against the way Li was treated by authorities, for the simple reason that people's unhappiness over political oppression has been running deep over the years.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 13

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ columnist