Dr. Li, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist at the Central Hospital of Wuhan, was reprimanded by the police after he shared concerns about seven new cases of pneumonia in an online chat group on Dec. 30. At the time, the Wuhan health commission was telling hospitals not to say anything publicly and just report the cases internally. The police accused the eight doctors of rumor-mongering. They compelled Dr. Li to sign a statement answering the questions “Can you stop your illegal behavior?” and “Do you understand you’ll be punished if you don’t stop such behavior?” He wrote, “I can” and “I understand,” and put his red-inked thumbprint on them.
In a strictly totalitarian system, that might have been the last word. But it was not. China is an authoritarian, one-party state that can easily silence dissidents one by one, but there are limits to its control, especially when millions of people on social media grow angry — as they have over Dr. Li’s death and the government’s failure to inform the public in the early stage of the epidemic. Aside from the biomedical issues and lockdown sacrifices, the public has zeroed in on the unexplained information gaps and coverups. This is extremely sensitive for a leadership that rigidly polices information.
According to Li Yuan of the New York Times, the hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech# was created on China’s social media platform Weibo at 2 a.m. on Friday, and had more than 2 million views and over 5,500 posts by 7 a.m. before it was deleted by censors. Another hashtag, “The Wuhan government owes Li Wenliang an apology,” was viewed 180 million times by late Thursday before it was blocked by government censors, the Financial Times reported.
This is not the first crisis of the digital age to expose popular fury in China: The Sichuan earthquake and contaminated dairy products scandal of 2008 and the Zhejiang train disaster of 2011 all did the same. China’s leaders have grown more proficient at managing it, giving people limited room to let off steam while marshaling censors, as well as injecting their own messages into the social media stream. The decision in Beijing to send a prosecutorial unit to investigate Dr. Li’s death is also a damage-control move.
The coronavirus outbreak presents a vast public-health challenge to China and will for months to come. But at the same time, it is shaking the foundations of a political system built on President Xi Jinping’s assurance that the party knows best for all. China’s people have some doubts.