A Chinese doctor who issued an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak before it was officially recognised died of the virus on Friday, triggering a wave of public mourning and rare expressions of anger towards the government online.
Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at a hospital in Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the outbreak, became one of the most visible figures in the crisis after he publicly revealed that he was one of eight people reprimanded by Wuhan police last month for “spreading rumours” about the coronavirus.
News of Li’s death became the top-read topic on China’s microblogging site Weibo overnight on Friday, with over 1.5 billion views, and was also heavily discussed in private WeChat messaging groups, where people expressed outrage and sadness.
Some Chinese media outlets described him as a “hero who was willing to speak the truth” while other commentators posted poems, photos and drawings saluting him. The World Health Organization said on Twitter that it was “deeply saddened” by news of his death.
“Light a candle and pay tribute to the hero,” said one Weibo commentator. “You were the beam of light in the night.” An image also posted on Weibo showed a message, “farewell Li Wenliang”, carved into the snow on a riverbank in Beijing.
But there were also signs that discussions of his death are being censored, especially ones that blamed the government.
The topics “the Wuhan government owes doctor Li Wenliang an apology” and “we want free speech” briefly trended on Weibo late on Thursday, but yielded no search results on Friday.
Reports of Li’s death had surfaced before midnight local time in China on state media but were deleted later.
Zhan Jian, a professor of international journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University, called on his Weibo account for a law shielding people like Li.
It would “protect people who have the inborn sense of right and wrong in telling faithful words to the public, and reveal the truth,” he said in his post.