If you have never heard of Dr. Li Wenliang, his story is worth knowing. To an extent, we all owe him our gratitude, because Li was one of the only eight Wuhan whistleblowers who warned the public about the coronavirus outbreak.
Chinese authorities were aware of the pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan since as early as December 1. Instead of warning the public to take proper precautions against the virus, they withheld this information, and suppressed the news.
On Dec. 30, 2019, Dr. Li, a respectable ophthalmologist in a hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus, shared disturbing news to his medical school alumni group: several individuals who had contact with the Hua Nan Seafood Market were diagnosed with SARS-like cases and quarantined in the hospital where he worked. Li warned his friends and colleagues to start taking extra precautions. It turned out that seven other medical professionals also blew the whistle on social media about the coronavirus in Wuhan.
Chinese authorities, eventually unable to cover up the outbreak any longer, were forced to alert the World Health Organization about the novel virus on Dec. 31, 2019. The question of how much longer the Chinese government would have waited to alert the WHO if not for the eight whistleblowers courageously sharing the news remains unknown.
Still, WHO praised the Chinese government for its “transparency,” yet Wuhan police started rounding up Li and the other doctors on New Year’s Day for “fabricating, disseminating and spreading rumors.” Each was forced to sign a pre-written, fabricated confession admitting their “wrongdoings” and promising to never do it again.
After his release, Li immediately resumed his work at the hospital. He ended up contracting the coronavirus after treating an infected patient, whom he didn’t know was infected at the time. Li was hospitalized on Jan. 12.
Strangely, his initial test results for coronavirus were all negative. He wasn’t tested positive for coronavirus until Feb. 1. Still, Li had been quarantined, along with numerous other doctors, nurses, and patients, at the Wuhan Central Hospital since mid-January.
The coronavirus spread in China like wildfire. The death toll and the number of infections is doubling nearly every five days. As of now, the virus has claimed more than 600 lives and sickened more than 30,000 people in China, according to China’s released data. However, many suspect the real numbers are much higher than what Beijing is willing to share.
The Chinese government has the ability to construct the most intrusive surveillance system to date to keep an eye on its 1.4 billion citizens, but is struggling to provide Chinese people basic necessities, such as sufficient masks and coronavirus test kits.
Li has become a folk hero in China. China’s netizens widely praised him for his courage to speak the truth and hint at growing dissatisfaction with the Chinese government. Even China’s Supreme Court, which has been at the forefront in cracking down on “rumors that damage national image,” curated a post on its WeChat page that pushed back on Wuhan police’s harsh treatment of the eight whistleblowers: “If the public listened to this ‘rumor’ at that time, and adopted measures such as wearing a mask, strict disinfection, and avoiding going to the wildlife market based on panic about SARS, this may have been a better way to prevent and control the new pneumonia… Rumors are stopped by transparency.”
However, don’t take court’s words too seriously. Some say it’s part of the Chinese central government’s strategy to direct people’s anger on local governments, diverting eyes from Beijing, the main culprit of the disastrous outbreak. In the same post, the court emphasized that although the warnings regarding the coronavirus were an exception, other “rumors” are still a punishable criminal act.
China has been a one-party state since 1949, and its current leader, Xi Jinping, named himself president-for-life in 2017. Xi is a perfect example in demonstrating that dictatorship only survives through control, fear, and lies. Speaking the truth in China is a heroic act, because such action always comes with a great deal of sacrifice.
Sadly, we learned over the weekend that Li paid the ultimate price for being a truth-teller. He passed away on the morning of February 6, local time. He was only 34 years old. Some sources suggest Li’s death was foul play, because while he was hospitalized since January 12, he was only tested positive for the coronavirus on Feb. 1. The slow diagnosis meant Li might not receive proper and adequate treatment. While this claim has yet to be verified, it is easy to see how little trust the Chinese people have in their government.
Li’s passing sent shockwaves throughout China. People are angry that Chinese censors won’t even allow them to commemorate this brave soul by using the hashtag #LiWenliang on social media. Chinese people now have to resort to other ways to express their condolences to Li and his family, along with their anger towards the Chinese government.
One post states, “How sad it is that one person couldn’t save 1.4 billion people and 1.4 billion people couldn’t save one person.” Another post simply said three words: “a national humiliation,” referring to how Li was reprimanded by the Wuhan police. To this day, the Wuhan police have yet to utter an apology for their actions, nor have they recanted their original charges against the eight whistleblowers.
As if Li’s passing at his young age isn’t tragic enough, multiple Chinese sources have reported that his wife, who was pregnant with the couple’s second child, passed away in the hours following. Although this news has not been verified, it’s disheartening to see. I can only pray that it is not true. Today is one of those days when the unanswerable question has to be asked: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do villains always seem to get away?
Prior to his passing, Li said in an interview that “A healthy society should not only have one voice.” Will his parting message inspire more Chinese to speak truth and to stand up to tyranny? We shall see.
Joseph Campbell once said, “a hero is someone who gives his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Dr. Li Wenliang was a respected doctor, a good son, a loving husband, and caring father of two children, one five-years-old and one unborn. Li was a hero. Rest in peace.