On December 30, 2019, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, did something unusual: he went to the authorities and warned about a viral condition similar to that of the SARS crisis, the epidemic that killed more than 700 people in 2003. The Chinese government ignored this warning and even arrested the doctor for spreading rumors and false information. When the police finally allowed him to go out on the streets, he resumed his work as a doctor.
Wenliang would spend the next few days treating the coronavirus in the crowded Wuhan hospital. Because of this, he would be infected and die soon after.
Li Wenliang and a not to believe story
Its history has become the symbol that shows the negligence with which the authorities of Hubei, the region of origin of the new coronavirus epidemic, faced the crisis. Within hours of his death, numerous messages were circulating in Weibo calling on the Chinese government for greater freedom of expression and transparency of information.
One of Dr. Wenliang’s colleagues and friends went viral within hours on social networks, demanding an apology from the Chinese state: “The Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology”.
The coronavirus has already infected more than 28,000 people across China, and around half a thousand patients have died, and the management of local authorities has been in question from the outset. It is believed that they were slow to react, to recognize the virus, to implement measures, and today they are paying for the haughtiness that has always characterized the Chinese executive branch.
Wenliang’s death reveals much of the inefficiencies of the Chinese regime. After his arrest, the Wuhan government ordered Dr Wenliang to sign a document admitting that he had broken the law by ‘spreading false rumours’ and seriously threatening ‘social order’. A crisis was brewing, of which they were warned in time, but the authorities prioritized their image of control and power, endangering the integrity not only of the inhabitants of the country, but of the whole world.
Wenliang represents, in many ways, the individual who fights against the state. He ended his days on the front line against the coronavirus, while the state administration looked the other way. Why is it that this sounds so familiar everywhere?
Wenliang’s story circulated quickly in Weibo and other Chinese digital forums. The doctor himself recounted his contagion and his voluntary quarantine, which triggered people’s interest in his fate. However, his death has led others to raise their voices, which is why phrases like “I want freedom of speech” were a trend in Weibo for days, with millions of supportive comments sent from all over China.
However, the powerful government, with its extensive censorship powers, silenced this social complaint.
The hashtag # I want freedom of speech # on Weibo is now gone. It had drawn 1.8 million views as of 5 a.m.
Even the phrase itself has been censored.
Not allowed to speak.
Not allowed to die.
Now allowed to be angry.
Not allowed to desire.
Are we allowed to at least remember? pic.twitter.com/bSQtpBKSOU
— Nectar Gan (@Nectar_Gan) February 7, 2020
To what extent is the government of China telling the whole truth? It’s an idea that has flown around in international circles and the media since the beginning of the crisis. In 2003, in the presence of SARS, the authorities did not spread all of their findings, making the crisis worse. This time the story seems different. China would have collaborated with the health agencies, although not immediately, at least it has done so in the medium term.
Its internal response has typically been authoritarian. In addition to the quarantine of 60 million people, the largest in history, there has been repression of the most critical voices of government policy, and a general shutdown of information about the epidemic as it has grown, something that was completely predictable from the moment the Chinese government blocked Wuhan, and from the moment the population found in Dr. Wenliang an icon.