China’s martyred coronavirus doctor poses problems for Beijing
Tributes to Li Wenliang suggest growing anger about mishandling of epidemic
China has a new martyr. A handsome, young doctor, Li Wenliang was initially persecuted for raising the alarm about the novel coronavirus that eventually killed him. His death, which was announced in the early hours of Friday morning, has triggered a nationwide howl of rage and mourning that now threatens Chinese President Xi Jinping’s belated attempt to get to grips with the epidemic. Hundreds of millions of users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo have been sharing photos of Li, the keyword “whistleblower” and lyrics to “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, a song about revolution from the musical Les Misérables. If China’s top leaders cannot dissipate the anger, they must hope it focuses on local officials who mismanaged the epidemic’s early stages. “With the scale of public anger the party will double down and manage his death carefully . . . and very tightly manage the tributes paid to him,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at Soas in London. Li, who was 34, has become the face the crisis had lacked, both at home and abroad. One of about a dozen doctors in Wuhan, Ground Zero of the virus, who had attempted to warn their colleagues and superiors in late December about the looming disaster, he was formally reprimanded by police for “spreading rumours”.
When the young ophthalmologist came down with the virus himself, contrasting sets of pictures went viral on Chinese social media. The first set showed him standing confidently in his white doctor’s coat, surgical mask and glasses, the kind of man every Chinese mother hopes her daughter will marry. In the second set the doctor had become patient, glasses removed and mask replaced with a respirator as he battled the disease that would soon kill him. Also widely circulated was the formal police document detailing his allegedly “illegal behaviour”, on which he has written the Chinese characters for “understand” and marked it with his fingerprints. After his death, online tributes were emblazoned with the words “we don’t understand”. China’s Supreme Court, in a rare rebuke of the police, have now criticised the persecution of Li and his colleagues, saying Wuhan authorities should have listened to their warnings. Li was not the type of victim previously associated with a respiratory disease that has so far killed more than 600 people, about 2 per cent of the more than 31,000 people infected. Most fatalities are presumed to be elderly or those suffering from chronic conditions. His lionisation contrasts starkly to the hatred and disgust now directed at officials in Wuhan, population 11m and capital of Hubei province. They appear to have under-reported case numbers and encouraged large gatherings before the city was finally quarantined on January 22. Its mayor estimates that some 5m residents left the city, transporting the coronavirus across China and international borders.
On Weibo, the hashtag “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” was viewed some 180m times before censors squashed it. In an online essay Xu Zhangrun, a prominent regime critic and professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said “the mess in Hubei is only the tip of the iceberg” and a result of the authoritarian turn China has taken under Mr Xi. Li was thinking of others to the last. Asked in a sickbed interview about the police harassment that catapulted him to national prominence. “Right now,” he replied, “I’m only thinking about getting better soon . . . After I recover, I want to go back to the front line.” Awkwardly for Mr Xi, who has proclaimed that “north, south, east, west and centre — the party is the leader of all”, Li’s heroism could also be contrasted to the president’s relative invisibility over recent weeks. Increasingly referred to in state media as “the people’s leader”, a term previously reserved for the party’s revolutionary hero, Mao Zedong, Mr Xi has been seen only sporadically over recent weeks, usually expressing confidence about the government’s handling of the crisis in carefully staged public meetings with visiting dignitaries.
When his administration was finally forced in mid-January to recognise the scale of the disaster under way in Wuhan and beyond, it was Premier Li Keqiang rather than Mr Xi who ventured into the epicentre of the epidemic. If Mr Xi and other senior party officials cannot hope to rival Li’s heroism, they can always try to appropriate it. The official Xinhua news agency reported on Friday that the Wuhan government had praised Li for his selfless “fighting on the front line against the epidemic”. A statement attributed to Li’s widow, Fu Xuejie, expressed confidence that “the party and the government can win this war”. Ms Fu could not be reached to confirm the statement, which also said that she now has a fever, is five months pregnant with Li’s second child and worries about who will care for their five-year-old son if her health deteriorates. Unfortunately for Beijing, Li’s sickbed interview failed to conform to their narrative. “After reading the Supreme Court’s article, I felt a lot of relief,” he told Caixin, a relatively independent Chinese investigative news platform. “I believe there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.” Tom.Mitchell@ft.com