Whistleblower doctor’s death stirs an online rebellion against China’s coronavirus response

February 7, 2020, 12:44 PM UTC

Chinese social media feeds erupted late Thursday and early Friday with news of the death of Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old Wuhan doctor-turned-whistle-blower who was arrested after warning of the dangers of coronavirus in early stages of the outbreak. Li passed away after being infected with the virus.

The wave of posts, however, went far beyond offering condolences to the doctor and his family; Li has become a symbol of the government’s perceived mishandling of the outbreak. He’s come to represent not just the virus’s persistent spread, but also Beijing’s apparent muzzling of information about the outbreak. And his death on Friday sparked a rare rebellion on China’s Internet.

In December, Li was one of eight doctors who posted online that the coronavirus, still in its infancy then, bore a startling resemblance to SARS and might be transmissible between humans. Li, along with seven other doctors, was then detained in early January by Wuhan authorities and made to sign a statement that he was “spreading rumors” and forced to delete his social media posts. But the mixed messages disseminated to the public didn’t stop there. At one point, Wuhan officials said that human-to-human transmission of the virus was limited; it’s evident now they knew then it was much more dangerous.

On Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly called U.S. President Donald Trump to say that his government has spared no effort in fighting the disease that as of Friday had infected over 30,000 people and killed at least 638. Yet swaths of the Chinese public seemed unconvinced as online frustration boiled over after Li’s death.

Mourning becomes a movement

Chinese social media posts “have evolved from a reaction to a whistleblower’s death [into] a political campaign requesting freedom of speech and political openness,” said professor King-wa Fu of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong. “Public frustration is real and widespread.”

The phrase “we want freedom of speech” temporarily trended on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter amid reports of Li’s death. “Some people will be scrubbed from WeChat, some will be scrubbed from Weibo,” one user wrote, referencing censors that routinely erase online content Beijing deems politically sensitive, like calls for free speech. “But slowly and inevitably the powerless will break through the wall. The government needs to operate but we also need justice and equality.” Other users posted screenshots from the recent TV show Chernobyl, making comparisons to how officials covered up the nuclear disaster in its early stages.

A medical staff member walks past a flower tribute to the late ophthalmologist Li Wenliang at the Houhu Branch of Wuhan Central Hospital in Wuhan on February 7, 2020.
AFP/Getty Images

The reactions to Li’s death are significant in that they’re coming from segments of Chinese society that are generally supportive and uncritical of the government, said Victor Shih, a Chinese politics professor at the University of California San Diego.

“What struck me is that even upper middle class and government professionals unanimously felt that this rule breaker [Li] was a good person, and much better than many who are in charge,” said Shih.

The online outpouring represents the largest and most public call for democracy in decades, according to Fu. What’s more difficult to determine is how Beijing will react; whether such demands will lead to more openness and transparency by the government or not.

Shih is not convinced that information will flow more freely since “controlling information is a major priority [for Beijing] during emergencies,” and two officials leading the response to the outbreak have close ties to the government’s propaganda bureau.

Living the outbreak online

The flurry of posts also points to just how much of the coronavirus outbreak is being lived online. As 50 million people in Wuhan and its surrounding areas remain under lockdown, and much of the rest of the country exists in various states of either self-imposed or government-ordered travel restriction, people are glued to their phones, a primary source of information about the outbreak. It’s a departure from how China’s last major outbreak unfolded. When SARS hit in 2003, smartphones did not exist, and only about 6% of the country (or roughly 80 million people) were even using the Internet. Now, upwards of 60% of the country (or 850 million people) are online. During SARS, people relied almost exclusively on government sources on TV and in newspapers for updates. China’s new media landscape means there are more avenues for information, but that proliferation has also bred mistrust.

Daily Life In Wuhan During Lockdown
Workers continue to prepare beds at Wuhan International Conference and Exhibition Center on February 4, 2020, anticipating that the coronavirus will stricken thousands more people in the city thought to be the epicenter of the outbreak.
Getty Images

Fortune spoke with several people in China about how they have been digesting news of the outbreak online over the past few weeks. They said in addition to some government-run news sources, that they have been relying on a mix of messages between friends and family, social media feeds, and following the platforms of people and sources they consider reliable.

“I have no idea about what the right information about coronavirus is, even from the government,” said a source in Shenzhen, who wished to remain anonymous due to political sensitivities. He added that he trusts the videos he comes across more than written reports because at least then he can see what’s happening.

“Both true information and misinformation are disseminated sufficiently fast that the government is not able to fully control it,” said Fu. At the same time, online channels have sparked recognition among users that they are not alone in their doubts. “When people feel ‘Our view is not isolated,’ they are encouraged to break the silence as opposed to the long, chilling atmosphere of the past,” he said.

Ultimately, any online frustrations is exacerbated by there being no end in sight to a disease that continues to spread by the thousands each day.

“(My friends and relatives) are so afraid,” said the person in Shenzhen, who is originally from a small village near Wuhan that is currently under lockdown. “I have no idea when it will get better. They also have no idea. That’s why they are so anxious.”

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