Li Wenliang: Covid whistleblower remembered on third anniversary of death in China

People attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang (centre) in 2020.
People attend a vigil for Dr Li Wenliang (centre) in 2020. Credit: AP

On this day three years ago the Chinese doctor that tried to raise the alarm about a new coronavirus died having contracted virus himself.

Dr Li Wenliang has become a quietly celebrated whistleblower in China and is mourned as a hero who will not be forgotten for what he tried to do.

He worked as an ophthalmologist at a hospital in Wuhan. On December 30, 2019 he sent a message in a group chat with fellow medics, warning them about a SARS-like virus spreading in the city.

Dr Li told them and their families to take precautions against an unidentified new strain of coronavirus, and asked them to be discreet with the information that had come from a hospital memo.

Unfortunately, his messages were made public and screengrabs began circulating on messaging sites.

Within hours he was contacted by his hospital bosses and received a warning from police about spreading "illegal" rumours.

On January 3, 2020 he and seven others were reprimanded and forced to sign a letter of admonishment for "making false comments on the internet". He was allowed to go back to work and days later he contracted the virus.

On February 1, he posted what would be his last message on the Chinese site Weibo: "The result of the nucleic-acid test today was positive. The dust has settled, and the diagnosis has finally been confirmed."

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Very quickly his lungs began failing and he was taken into a critical care unit and put on a ventilator.

A week later, on February 7, he died, prompting millions of people to express their grief and anger on Chinese social media.

Censors struggled to keep up with the outpouring of messages, many of which included the hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech.

At the hospital where he worked friends and workers laid flowers and blew whistles in an act of defiance.

Floral tributes left outside Wuhan Central Hospital in memory of Dr Li. Credit: AP

The Chinese government seized on the fact Dr Li was a committed Communist Party member and attempted to change the narrative by honouring him as a national martyr, along with 13 other doctors who had died while battling on the frontlines of the pandemic.

That is partly why, three years on, Dr Li’s Weibo account is still active and has not been completely erased by China’s censors.

It is still monitored and certain posts will suddenly disappear, but it has nevertheless managed to become a wailing wall where hundreds post messages every day, sharing their concerns and continuing to mourn his death.

Since the end of zero-Covid @xiaolwl has become a popular place for people to share news of loved ones they have lost, to vent their frustrations and to question what Dr Li would make of it all.

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People are careful not to openly criticise the government, but many mention the suffering they have experienced and point to the number of death announcements being shared.

Today, on the anniversary of his death, thousands of people have added comments in the section below his last post.

Most have simply posted a candle emoji and promised that he won’t be forgotten. One person wrote "we welcome the brightness, the one who holds a light to make the world bright is worth being remembered".

Another person questioned whether the police officers who detained him were ever punished.

A recurring post in the thread is a quote from one of the last interviews given by Dr Li in which he said: "In a healthy society, there shouldn’t be just one voice."

When Dr Li died his wife was pregnant with their second son, a boy who was born in June 2020 and will never get to meet his father. A man he will come to learn is hailed as a hero, not just in China, but around the world.