Chinese whistleblower doctor honoured

Emily Wang Fujiyama and Huizhong Wu
·3-min read

The message was tucked into a bouquet of chrysanthemums left at the back of Wuhan Central Hospital to honour a Chinese whistleblower doctor who died from the coronavirus a year ago.

It was simply the number of a Bible verse: Matthew 5:10.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," the verse reads.

A year ago on Sunday, Dr Li Wenliang died from the virus first detected in Wuhan. A small stream of people marked the anniversary with visits to the hospital on Saturday, some leaving flowers.

The 34-year-old ophthalmologist was one of eight whistleblowers punished by authorities early on for "spreading rumours" about a SARS-like virus on social media.

His situation, eventually made public in media reports, made him a potent symbol for the perils of going against officiald messaging in China.

The Chinese public embraced Li, whose presence online had painted a picture of an ordinary person.

His wife was pregnant and he was soon to be a father. He sent the "rumour" because he wanted to warn others.

The public also watched as he fell ill with the disease he was warning them about, eventually worsened, and died.

Li's death was initially reported by Chinese state media on the night of February 6, 2020 but the outlets quickly withdrew their reporting.

Some hours later, in the early morning of February 7, Wuhan Central Hospital announced his death.

Chinese people grieved his death, online and off. Mourners brought flowers to the hospital, while some were furious and demanded freedom of speech - posts that were quickly censored.

Li's death seemed to raise a challenge to the central government, as public anger swelled.

"A healthy society should not have just one type of voice," Li had said in an interview with the Chinese business magazine Caixin last year.

Central government authorities conducted an investigation in Li's death, concluding the officer who punished the doctor should be reprimanded.

One police officer was given a demerit, while another was given an official warning, state media later reported.

At the conclusion of the investigation, authorities published a Q&A, in which they noted: "Li was a Communist Party member, not a so-called 'person who was against the system'."

It said those who labeled him that way were "enemy forces".

Since then, the epidemic has largely been controlled within China's borders and the narrative has shifted to one of triumph.

China just released a film - Days and Nights in Wuhan - that celebrates China's official line that the measures it took, including the unprecedented lockdown it imposed on the city, bought precious time for the world to prepare for the pandemic.

That victorious narrative has been underscored more by the devastation the pandemic has wreaked in many other countries.

However many have questioned China's response to the virus and its initial level of transparency.

It wasn't until last month China finally allowed a WHO team into the country to investigate.

Wuhan for the most part has returned to normal, with shopping malls and streets crowded, and there is little visible evidence of the suffering the city went through. Still, a few of its residents mourn quietly.

Li's death is still a sensitive topic, and his family has refrained from giving media interviews. While his Weibo profile has been left up, there has been no largescale public memorial.