A New Martyr Puts a Face on China’s Deepening Coronavirus Crisis

WUHAN, China — More than 700 people have died. Tens of thousands are infected. Millions are living under lockdown, and the government has sought to silence complaints.

But what provoked an online revolt in China on Friday, the fiercest assault on the censors in almost a decade, began with the death of one man: the doctor who tried to warn others about the coronavirus.

The deluge of mourning and anger at the death of the doctor, Li Wenliang — from the same virus he was reprimanded for mentioning — at times overwhelmed China’s sophisticated censorship and propaganda systems. Many on social media called the doctor a martyr and a hero, and government officials, celebrities and business leaders risked rebuke by the Communist Party to join ordinary citizens in expressing frustration and grief.

“Li Wenliang’s death has become an emotional flash point,” said Wang Yu, a Wuhan man in his 20s, showing the torrent of comments on his phone about Dr. Li in his social media feeds.

“He’s a tragic figure in this epidemic, and his death has taken this tragedy to a new extreme,” Mr. Wang said. Then he hesitated and took back his words. “I worry that his death won’t be the extreme of this tragedy.”

The doctor’s death posed a new test for China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who was already facing deep political problems — over a newly signed trade deal with Washington, Taiwan’s recent election and Hong Kong’s protest movement — before the virus spilled out of Wuhan. In recent weeks, Mr. Xi’s talks with foreign leaders have shifted to a defense of China’s response to the epidemic, which has sickened more than 34,000 people and brought the country to a near standstill.

Now, the government is also caught in a tug of war over Dr. Li’s legacy that could challenge Mr. Xi’s powerful censorship apparatus.

Credit…Li Wenliang, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When Dr. Li, 34, warned of the virus in an online chat room more than five weeks ago, the police made him an example of what befalls those who do not comply with official demands for secrecy. He was summoned by the authorities and forced to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an unfounded and illegal rumor.

After his death on Friday, many Chinese said he was a haunting reminder of the early steps taken to cover up the outbreak.

  • Updated Feb. 5, 2020

    • Where has the virus spread?
      You can track its movement with this map.
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      There have been at least a dozen cases. American citizens and permanent residents who fly to the United States from China are now subject to a two-week quarantine.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      Several countries, including the United States, have discouraged travel to China, and several airlines have canceled flights. Many travelers have been left in limbo while looking to change or cancel bookings.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands is the most important thing you can do.

Stuck inside by widespread lockdowns, many people are glued to the internet, with abundant time to dwell on the doctor’s death. Chinese social media, often fractious and fickle, was as unanimous as it has ever been in its grief for Dr. Li, with eulogies flowing from all corners of the country. For a few hours, a trending hashtag called for freedom of speech.

Unable to fully expunge the discussions, Beijing has turned to state media to transform Dr. Li into a loyal soldier aligned with the government’s cause. The tussle over the doctor’s memory and the political implications are reminiscent of what happened after the SARS outbreak, some said in posts that were quickly deleted.

Jiang Yanyong, the retired military doctor who first called attention to widespread undercounting of SARS cases, has been erased from the official record of that time. By contrast, Zhong Nanshan, the doctor who first identified SARS, has been lionized as a faithful servant. When Beijing needed someone to publicly deliver bad news about the coronavirus, it turned to Dr. Zhong.

Dr. Li’s death also showed how online anger can occasionally slosh over the tall censorship walls built to stifle it. China’s censors have not been this overwhelmed since 2011, when anger and embarrassment over a high-speed rail accident in Wenzhou became impossible to scrub. The Wenzhou crash helped spur new policies to more tightly police the internet.

While many of the lives lost in the coronavirus outbreak have been obscured by the numbers, Dr. Li’s death has provided a face and story for the victims of the epidemic and the medical workers struggling to contain it.

In Wuhan, a steel-gray sky hung over the melancholy day of Mr. Li’s death. An impromptu memorial of flowers, a black-and-white photograph and singed cigarettes — a stand-in for joss sticks — formed at the entrance of the hospital where he had died. The mourners during the daytime were few, perhaps because many people in Wuhan remain afraid to stray too far from home.

“Thank you for your courage,” said the message on one bouquet of chrysanthemums, the Chinese flower of mourning. “Heroes never die, thank you,” said another.

In an interview with Pear Video, Dr. Li’s mother spoke of her grief through sobs. For several weeks, he was stable and able to get out of bed and eat, she said, adding that only in the last two days did his condition deteriorate. She said she had not been able to see him before he died and described the shattered family he left behind.

“In June, his second child will be born,” she said, adding that she and Dr. Li’s father had both contracted the illness, but recovered. “What happens to his family? Is it not broken?”

“Me and his father were cured, but pitifully our child, our child didn’t make it,” she added. “He was 34 years old. He had great potential. He was a very talented kid. He isn’t like other people who lie — he was loyal to his duties.”

Candle emojis, quotes and images of Dr. Li dominated social media feeds. Business leaders and celebrities, accustomed to muzzling political hot takes for fear of invoking the government’s wrath, shared their thoughts and condolences. One popular illustration turned the outlines of Dr. Li’s surgical mask into barbed wire.

A part of Dr. Li’s appeal has been his Everyman sensibilities. He loved fried chicken thighs, was annoyed when cherry prices rose too high and often got stuck working extra shifts at the hospital. Like many others in China, he wrote all about it online.

On the microblogging site Weibo, users surfaced his old musings.

“A life not examined is not worth living,” he wrote in a characteristically quirky post, after musing about the origin of egg pancakes. “I hope everyone can fulfill their values.”

The country’s state media released its own remembrances, in some cases working to subtly co-opt Dr. Li’s story.

China’s National Health Commission recalled him not as a Cassandra warning about the virus, but instead as a doctor on the front lines of the response. Although Dr. Li had expressed a desire to help his colleagues, he was an ophthalmologist who was sickened by a patient he was treating for glaucoma.

“Since the start of the epidemic, many medical workers disregarded their own safety, gave up their small family, and braved the difficulties for the bigger family, and fought bravely at the foremost front line of the epidemic,” the health commission said in a statement. Those workers, it added, “made great contributions to protect people’s life and health, and we pay the utmost respect.”

China’s state-run television broadcaster sought to link Dr. Li directly to Mr. Xi’s own words about the battle against the epidemic. “Beating this devil virus is the best consolation to the deceased,” the broadcaster said in a commentary, echoing Mr. Xi’s characterization of the illness.

On Friday, bowing to popular pressure, Communist Party officials said they would send a team from the powerful anticorruption committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding Dr. Li’s death.

The State Supervisory Committee has “decided to send an investigation team to Wuhan, Hubei Province, to conduct a comprehensive investigation on related issues reported by the masses about Dr. Li Wenliang,” it said on Friday, releasing a one-line statement on its website.

It is rare for the Communist Party to react so swiftly to public outrage. Several top officials and state media outlets had joined in the chorus mourning Dr. Li’s death. In statements online, the National Health Commission and the Wuhan government said they had expressed their condolences.

The New York Times spoke to Dr. Li a week before his death. “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” he told The Times, “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”

“I felt I was wronged, but I had to accept it,” he said of his arrest. “Obviously I had been acting out of good will.”

“I have felt very sad seeing so many people losing their loved ones.”

Reporting was contributed by Daniel Victor, Eimi Yamamitsu, Steven Lee Myers, Sui Lee Wee, Elaine Yu, Liz Alderman, Denise Grady, Scott Reyburn and Vivian Wang. Research was contributed by Lin Qiqing, Albee Zhang, Elsie Chen and Cao Li.