The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Doctor’s death from coronavirus sparks a digital uprising, rattling China’s leaders

Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, who was silenced by police for trying to share news about the new coronavirus, died on Feb. 6 after coming down with the illness. (Video: Reuters)

HANGZHOU, China — Streets across China were quiet and neighborhoods sealed, but grief and rage against the government poured onto social media Friday as the country confronted the death of the "whistleblower doctor" whose story was seen as a parable for the Communist Party's failings.

Within hours of Li Wenliang’s death, millions of Chinese, homebound in the coronavirus crisis, tried to bypass censors to post the hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech in a remarkable but short-lived digital uprising. The users were memorializing Li, who is considered the first to sound the alarm about the deadly new virus when he leaked a Dec. 30 document from his hospital confirming a diagnosis. On Jan. 1, he was detained and silenced by Wuhan police, who accused him of spreading false rumors.

As the torrent of outrage built up overnight, the government in Beijing turned to a familiar tool — censorship — as it sought to prevent the already staggering public health crisis from taking a volatile turn.

“He was an ordinary figure, but a symbol,” said Zhang Lifan, an independent historian in Beijing. “If it weren’t for the epidemic and nobody could leave their home, there would likely be demonstrations right now. Officials are absolutely concerned.”

Coronavirus live updates: The latest on the crisis

Li’s fame skyrocketed in recent days after he disclosed that after police released him in January, he immediately returned to work at Wuhan Central Hospital and contracted the virus from patients. He fell ill Jan. 10 and three weeks later, at age 34, became one of the 710-plus Chinese to succumb to the disease.

On Friday, in semiautonomous Hong Kong, activists held an evening memorial for Li in the city’s financial district. On the Chinese mainland, where such gatherings are often quickly snuffed out, supporters around the country used the Internet to order deliveries of flowers to Wuhan Central, where Li worked and died. As night fell over Wuhan, residents collectively shut off their lights and whistled out of their windows at the stroke of 9 p.m. to celebrate Li’s memory.

Meanwhile, the government made apparent gestures to placate the public.

The Communist Party’s anticorruption agency announced an investigation into Li’s death. Officials at the National Health Commission told reporters it would carefully review his medical records to determine how he fell so sharply ill, and offered its condolences.

Yet neither agency touched what many consider to be the crux of the Li saga: how he fought and lost against the coverups and the censorship — the very nature of the Communist Party itself — in the early days of the virus outbreak.

Online, many Chinese did.

Overnight, the #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech hashtag gathered more than 2 million views before it was deleted.

“A system that won’t allow truth finally kills an honest, brave, and hard-working citizen. We should be not only angered but also ashamed! Why can’t people have freedom of speech? Why can’t we question?” said one post archived by the California-based China Digital Times project before it, too, was scrubbed by censors.

Others drew a direct line between “sealed mouths” and their current predicament — “sealed cities” under lockdown — and warned that, historically, disasters have struck China when speech has been gagged.

Some users on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, took the risky step of echoing Hong Kong’s protest movement and drawing up a list of “five demands” that asked the Chinese government to formally apologize to Li and legally enforce freedom of speech, among other things.

Missteps and state secrecy in China allowed virus to spread farther, faster

Still others went as far as comparing the unifying, rallying effect of Li’s death to the 1989 student movement in Tiananmen Square, which was brutally crushed by the Communist Party. The posts were quickly removed.

On WeChat, a popular social media app, clips were posted of the protest anthem “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from “Les Misérables.”

By morning, Li’s name was the most heavily censored term on Weibo, according to the website, which tracks the most frequently deleted terms on the platform.

The press was also kept on a tight leash as news of Li’s death broke.

“Strictly standardize sources of articles; prohibit the use of citizen media; do not use alerts, give commentary or sensationalize,” read a propaganda directive issued to media outlets Thursday night and circulated in Chinese journalism circles on WeChat. “Safely control the temperature [of discourse about Li’s death] . . . and gradually withdraw the topic from popular search lists.”

On Friday, Chinese outlets appeared free to cover Li, and most reports stayed tightly focused on questions about his surviving relatives’ condition and how he became infected. Shortly before his death, Li revealed that he may have brought the coronavirus home from his work and infected his family, including his pregnant wife.

One outlet, the salmon-colored Economic Observer, whose readership comprises China’s business elite, pushed the envelope: It dedicated its front page to Li with a headline directly beseeching authorities: “Please clear the name of the Wuhan ‘rumor-mongerer.’ ”

Li Weidong, a former editor of the China Reform magazine, said the government is likely to heap praise on Li in the coming days to soothe public anger, but not backtrack with an apology.

He doubted that the administration of Xi Jinping, who has emphasized maintaining the party’s iron grip over society, would respond to public criticism.

“A dead pig isn’t scared of being scalded by boiling water,” he said.

In China’s virus-hit heartland, fear and loathing on the road to Wuhan

Sun Desheng, a 38-year-old truck driver and longtime dissident in Hubei province, said he was struck by the outpouring of emotion online about Li’s case, but he also didn’t feel hopeful.

“With this epidemic, more people know the importance of freedom of speech,” Sun said by phone from Huanggang, adjacent to Wuhan. “It could gradually make people wake up. They see we’ve had decades of growth, our clothes are nicer, our sanitation is better. Then they ask: ‘Is our society truly better?’ ”

But Sun wasn’t convinced that outrage that existed only online could be a catalyst for dramatic change. Li’s case will be forgotten in a few days, he predicted.

“In China, people are not deep thinkers,” he said. “Soon they’ll go back to their celebrity and sports videos.”

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.