This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on February 10, 2020 and can be accessed here.
Li Wenliang, a doctor who was arrested for trying to tell his school friends about the coronavirus in January died from the same disease last week. His death has led to a flood of solidarity across Chinese social media for the whistle-blower who did not set out to be one.
The ophthalmologist who worked in Wuhan Central hospital was one of eight people who were “reprimanded” for spreading rumours about the virus in early January. He was admonishmed for posting patients who exhibited similar symptoms at the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in a group of former classmates. However, he continued his work in the hospital until his own tests came back positive for the virus. His death was first announced by state media, then redacted and finally released after Wuhan Central Hospital officially announced it on 07 February.
Within hours, hashtags such as “Wuhan Government Owes Li an Apology”, “I Want Freedom of Speech” and “Can you manage? Do you understand?” went viral on Chinese twitter. The last is a reference to the statement that Li Wenliang was forced to sign by the Wuhan Police when disciplined for disturbing public order. But these hashtags have disappeared from wechat and weibo with innumerable accounts suspended. In a country where over a billion people use mobile payments, the suspension of such services, particularly in crimes of crises is not a mere inconvenience.
On the other hand, the Central government has pointed out that this is a lapse of the local officials. The State Administration announced that a team was dispatch to enquire into Li Wenliang’s death. The editor-in-chief of the Global Times, Hu Xijin wrote a post on Weibo asking local officials to apologise for their mistakes. If Li Wenliang is too big to be censored then it is possible that he will be co-opted into the official narrative. The Global Times also published a piece alleging that “Hong Kong and anti-China groups were enlisting people to help sensationalize the story on Chinese social media in efforts to spread negative publicity on the mainland and incite the so-called democratic movement.” To be fair, it is precipitous to overstate the public grief as translating into anything else politically or socially.
An interview of Li’s, published when he was still sick, revealed that he was paying for treatment by himself, and that he hoped to go back to the frontlines after recovering. The reason he is mourned this week is because his simple gesture of caring for people became an act of protest. Li is not the first symbol of the common man in China being a conscientious citizen and being penalised for it. During the 2003 SARS epidemic, a military doctor named Jiang Yanyong wrote to Chinese media revealing the extent of the virus. The news was leaked to Western media and finally it broke through public consciousness, forcing the government to reveal the scale of the disease. Recent reports allege that he is remains under house arrests for a letter he wrote the government about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
The difference between the two men is that Jiang Yanyong actively did his duty by blowing the whistle on the epidemic while Li Wenliang was only speaking on a semi-public space. But both are examples of courage in bounded spaces. If in a democracy like India, people are being arrested on account of sedition for staging plays, raising slogans at peaceful protests and writing open letters, then that space is even more limited in China. That is why it is more important than ever to remember Li Wenliang, his powerful gesture and his simple words: “A healthy society has more than one voice.”s