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How Dr Li became a martyr and challenged China’s censors


How Dr Li became a martyr and challenged China’s censors


The February 7 death of Li Wenliang, one of eight doctors in Wuhan who first raised concerns about the coronavirus, ignited a frenzy of outrage that even the government censors are having trouble managing.


– Li became a martyr for netizens exasperated at the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis and extreme control over information
– The death of the whistle-blower doctor evoked immense anger online
– Chinese censors are finding it difficult to contain netizens fury
– China is now at a crossroads in regards to how it controls information


Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, first warned about the emergence of a novel coronavirus on December 30 on his Weibo microblog. He was censored and reprimanded by local Wuhan police for making ‘false comments‘ and ‘disturbing public order,’ and made to sign an agreement that he would stop ‘engaging with illegal activities’ and ‘carefully reflect’ on his behaviour. A week later, Li contracted the virus from a patient, leading to his death a month later on February 7.

An outcry online immediately followed the announcement of his death. The rage and frustration on Chinese social media the night that Li died was on a level that never been seen before, according to seasoned China watchers such as China Neican. Posts that expressed ‘anger, distrust and despair’ flooded social media, many of them targeting the Chinese government and state media. These posts were quickly deleted, most likely by government censors, but the hashtag ‘Can you do that? Do you understand?’ — a reference to the orders on the agreement Li signed with the police — became an instant meme. Weibo posts using this hashtag also included angry condemnations of the police and the state media while paying tribute to the doctor.


Image: Mike MacKenzie/

During previous crises in the internet age, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has controlled public outrage. In 2008, a massive earthquake hit the Sichuan province, killing over 69,000 people. Although the Chinese government was initially praised for its response and rescue efforts, it was soon reported that over 7,000 schoolrooms had collapsed during the earthquake as a result of inadequate construction practices. Over 5,000 school children died when the shoddy schoolrooms collapsed, sparking domestic outrage and protests. However, online criticism was carefully managed and suppressed by government censors. Exclamations of anger were removed from forums in the name of maintaining harmony; online dissent was kept to a minimum.

The coronavirus crisis is a different challenge for the CCP, as Li’s created a catalyst for netizens to unleash their rage. Since February 7, the battleground on Chinese social media between government censors and citizens voicing their dissent has become more volatile. Videos showing Li and other whistle-blower doctors being reprimanded continue to be spread online and official state media is either criticised or ignored. Viral videos and images of suffering patients and beleaguered doctors are being spread alongside images of Li. This is threatening China’s version of the social contract, where freedom and civic rights are traded for security and economic prosperity.

The situation has led CCP critics within China to become bolder. Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangru wrote a scathing critique on President Xi Jinping’s handling of the crisis, while civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong wrote an open letter to Xi that called for his resignation. Both men have been silenced in a crackdown on dissent, with Xu Zhiyong facing up to 15 years in prison for the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.”


Image: HBO’s Chernobyl

The online outburst has proven difficult for the CCP censorship machinery to quash. This could lead to a revaluation of how the party controls the flow of information. Were the government to design its censorship policies for a long-time horizon, it may move towards loosening controls on information. This would facilitate the free flow of information during health emergencies, helping ensure that both citizens and the government are better prepared to handle the situation. But this approach would expose the CCP to more criticism in the short-term. The CCP’s domestic support rests on the perception that they are able to provide welfare and safety. Already this crisis has revealed that this perception is not entirely accurate. CCP officials have claimed that free press and other forms of democratic accountability have led to chaos and dysfunction. Xi believes that a loosening of control led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a similar policy in China would cause the party to lose its legitimacy, weakening both the CCP and country Xi. Therefore, it is unlikely that it will take this course.

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Alternatively, the CCP might decide that tighter controls are needed, preferring instead to mitigate future health crises and similar disasters through other means, such as increased automation and centralisation. If the government decides to increase online censorship, in the short term it could quash dissent. A particularly harsh crackdown may prohibit the use of VPNs in China or even shut off internet access in volatile regions. However, such strict control of online information would leave China as unprepared for future disasters as it was for the coronavirus.

China hawks and other international commentators have argued that the epidemic is a turning point for the country that mirrors the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster and its effects on the Soviet Union. That disaster was exacerbated by an inefficient authoritarian system that revealed its own flaws during the botched response, causing a societal rupture that precipitated its collapse. While the case studies are dissimilar, the parallels being drawn reveal how the CCP is being perceived.

Chinese netizens have also connected the Chernobyl disaster and the coronavirus outbreak. After Li’s death, individuals posted references about Li and the virus to a Chinese film review website for the HBO series Chernobyl. The damage to the CCP’s reputation as an organisation will be difficult to undo, and there is a small possibility that Xi could find his position as an all-powerful leader weakened. Last year was rough for Xi, with the China–US trade war and the Hong Kong protests, yet the party appears to remain behind him. It is possible that CCP rivals could begin to act against Xi, but until party members start showing the same feelings of dissent as the Chinese people have expressed online, it is unlikely that Xi’s status within the party will change.

The CPP itself though has lost much credibility with the people, leaving it bruised but not out. The party propaganda machine is now in full force trying to turn back the tide of dissent, targeting the local members of the government as scapegoats for the outbreak. Li has been honoured posthumously by the government as a “sacrifice” in the battle against the virus. Chinese netizens have seen this all before, but they might not accept it this time.

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