China Politics

Coronavirus whistleblower doctor dies, sparking outpouring — and censorship — on social media

Key Points
  • A 34-year-old doctor who had been diagnosed with the new coronavirus died early Friday.
  • Li Wenliang, who caught the virus after treating patients with the disease, was one of eight whistleblowers reprimanded by Wuhan police for allegedly spreading "illegal and false" information about the virus.
  • The social media outpouring was immense and soon morphed into greater frustration with the establishment and its handling of the outbreak.
  • Some who were more critical of the government included the hashtag #IWantFreedomOfSpeech in their posts, but that hashtag was censored on Weibo.
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Chinese social media lights up at death of coronavirus whistleblower, Dr. Li Wenliang

One of the first doctors who flagged the new coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan, China has died.

His death triggered a wave of grief and anger among Chinese social media users, many of whom were already frustrated with the government's handling of an outbreak that has killed hundreds and infected thousands in China. Some who were more critical of the government included the hashtag #IWantFreedomOfSpeech in their posts, but that hashtag was censored on Weibo.

Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang sounded the alarm in December when he told a group of doctors on Chinese social media about seven cases he saw. He and seven other whistleblowers were reprimanded by the Wuhan police in January for spreading "illegal and false" information.

Li was later infected with the coronavirus himself after treating patients with the virus.

He died at 2:58 a.m. local time, the Wuhan Central Hospital announced on China's Twitter-like service Weibo. He was 34.

Chinese social media had already been buzzing with anger and concern about Li's health for several hours. From late Thursday night, state-run media were already reporting that he had died, before the hospital said he was still in critical condition.

The World Health Organization also expressed its condolences, although it said it did not have information on Li's status as of 2:35 a.m.

The social media outpouring was immense and soon morphed into greater frustration with the establishment and its handling of the coronavirus outbreak which has spread globally.

On Friday morning, the two most popular hashtags on Weibo were related to Li's death. China's ubiquitous messaging app WeChat was filled with condolences.

The comments ranged from respect and sadness over the loss of a "hero." Some referenced lyrics from Les Miserables' "Do You Hear the People Sing." Others repeated a quote from Li to Caixin Media, "A healthy society should not only have one voice."

A screengrab of the hashtag 'I want freedom of speech' on Chinese social media after the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan who raised an early alarm on the new coronavirus outbreak.
CNBC

"The top searches on Weibo, the news (that you see) is all that they want you to see, lies are also made up by what those at the top want to make up, (I'm) losing confidence in the official media. Freedom of speech doesn't exist at all," said a Weibo user, according to a CNBC translation.

"It's really just a show, from the beginning of this epidemic till now, it's all being made up by one lie after after," said another.

"I love this country, love the people in this country, the land, lakes and rivers but I do not love the country's rulers," posted another.

Later Friday, China's top anti-corruption agency the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said in a statement it would send a team to Wuhan to investigate the issues related to Li.

Experts told CNBC last week that the coronavirus outbreak is the greatest political challenge for China's President Xi Jinping.

Through the end of Thursday, China's National Health Commission said the outbreak has killed 636 people and infected 31,161 in the country.

— CNBC's Evelyn Cheng, Wendy Ye, Penny Chen and Iris Wang contributed to this report.