As the torrent of outrage built up overnight, the government in Beijing turned to a familiar tool — censorship — as it sought to prevent the already-staggering public health crisis from taking a volatile turn.
“He was an ordinary figure, but a symbol,” said Zhang Lifan, an independent historian in Beijing. “If it weren’t for the epidemic and nobody could leave their home, there would likely be demonstrations right now.”
Li’s fame skyrocketed in recent days after he disclosed that after police released him in January, he immediately returned to work at Wuhan Central Hospital and contracted the virus from patients. He fell ill on Jan. 10 and three weeks later, at age 34, became one of the 630 Chinese to succumb to the disease.
On Friday, in semiautonomous Hong Kong, activists planned an evening memorial for Li in the city’s financial district. On the Chinese mainland, where such gatherings are often quickly snuffed out, supporters around the country used the Internet to order deliveries of flowers to Wuhan Central, where Li worked and died. In Beijing, a mourner wrote “Farewell, Li Wenliang” in the snow-covered banks of the Tonghui canal, according to photos making the rounds on social media.
Meanwhile, the government made apparent gestures to placate the public.
The Communist Party’s anticorruption agency announced an investigation into Li’s death. Officials at the National Health Commission told reporters it would carefully review his medical records to determine how he fell so sharply ill, and offered its condolences.
Yet neither agency touched what many consider to be the crux of the Li saga: How he fought and lost against the coverups and the censorship — the very nature of the Communist Party itself — in the early days of the virus outbreak.
Online, many Chinese did.
“A system that won’t allow truth finally kills an honest, brave, and hard-working citizen. We should be not only angered but also ashamed! Why can’t people have freedom of speech? Why can’t we question?” said one post archived by the California-based China Digital Times project before it was scrubbed by censors.
Others drew a direct line between “sealed mouths” and their current predicament — “sealed cities” under lockdown — and warned that historically, disasters have struck China when speech has been gagged.
Some users on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, took the risky step of echoing Hong Kong’s protest movement and drawing up a list of “five demands” that asked the Chinese government to formally apologize to Li and legally enforce freedom of speech, among other things.
Still others went as far as comparing the unifying, rallying effect of Li’s death to the 1989 student movement in Tiananmen Square, which was brutally crushed by the Communist Party. The posts were quickly removed.
By morning, Li’s name was the most heavily censored term on Weibo, according to the website freeweibo.com, which tracks the most frequently deleted terms on the platform.
The press was also kept on a tight leash as news of Li’s death broke.
“Strictly standardize sources of articles; prohibit the use of citizen media; do not use alerts, give commentary or sensationalize,” read a propaganda directive issued to media outlets Thursday night and circulated in Chinese journalism circles on WeChat. “Safely control the temperature [of discourse about Li’s death] … and gradually withdraw the topic from popular search lists.”
On Friday, Chinese outlets appeared free to cover Li, and most reports stayed tightly focused on questions about his surviving relatives’ condition and how he became infected. Shortly before his death, Li revealed that he may have brought the coronavirus home from his work and infected his family, including his pregnant wife.
State media cited a medical expert as saying Li, trained as an opthalmalogist, was assigned to receive patients at Wuhan Central’s emergency room, where he treated the boss of the seafood market where the outbreak began.
Li Weidong, a former editor of the influential China Reform magazine, said the government will likely heap praise on Li in the coming days to soothe public anger, but not backtrack with an apology.
He doubted the current administration of Xi Jinping, who has emphasized maintaining the party’s iron grip over society, would respond to public criticism.
“A dead pig isn’t scared of being scalded by boiling water,” he said.
Sun Desheng, a truck driver and longtime dissident in Hubei province, said he was struck by the outpouring of emotion online about Li’s case, and saw a small possibility for a political awakening.
“With this epidemic, more people know the importance of freedom of speech,” Sun, 38, said by phone from Huanggang, adjacent to Wuhan. “It could gradually make people wake up. They see we’ve had decades of growth, our clothes are nicer, our sanitation is better. Then they ask, is our society truly better?”
But Sun wasn’t convinced that online outrage could be a catalyst for dramatic change. Li’s case will be forgotten in a few days, he predicted.
“In China, people are not deep thinkers,” he said. “Soon they’ll go back to their celebrity and sports videos.”