BEIJING • China has launched an investigation after the death of a doctor, who issued an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak, triggered a wave of public mourning and rare expressions of anger towards the government online.
Dr 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 revealed that he was one of eight people reprimanded by Wuhan police last month for "spreading rumours" about the coronavirus before it was officially recognised.
News of Dr Li's death became the top-read topic on China's microblogging site Weibo overnight yesterday, with more than 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, photographs and drawings saluting him. The World Health Organisation 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 posted on Weibo showed the 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 yesterday.
Many had also typed out the first line of the Chinese national anthem - "Arise! All those who don't want to be slaves!" - and shared the song Do You Hear The People Sing from Les Miserables, a musical about people who take to the streets to protest against tyranny.
Some vented about how he was initially silenced, and mourned with the pregnant wife and young child he left behind.
Reports of Dr Li's death surfaced before midnight local time in China on state media but were deleted later.
China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, its top anti-corruption body, said yesterday that it would send investigators to Wuhan to probe "issues raised by the people in connection with Dr Li Wenliang".
Prof 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 Dr 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.
Last December, Dr Li, 34, told a group of doctors on WeChat, a Chinese social media and messaging platform, that seven cases of a disease resembling severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) had been linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, believed to be the source of the virus.
He posted a picture of a test result confirming a Sars-like coronavirus in a patient sample, according to a screenshot of the WeChat conversations seen and verified by Reuters.
A letter to Dr Li from the Wuhan police bureau on Jan 3 said he had "severely disrupted social order" with his WeChat messages.
He was asked to sign the letter as a promise to stop such illegal behaviour immediately and told that if he refused to comply, he would face criminal charges.
A few days after the police summons, Dr Li treated a patient who initially came in for glaucoma but later had a fever. A lung scan showed viral pneumonia.
On Jan 12, as he felt unwell and was suspected of having contracted the virus, he was moved to an isolation ward, Dr Li told Caixin, a Chinese magazine that has reported aggressively on the epidemic. His parents were also infected and taken to the hospital.
On Jan 30, Dr Li said his test result had come back negative, but he remained in the isolation ward.
On Feb 1, Dr Li said on Weibo he had tested positive for the coronavirus. By Wednesday, his condition had worsened, he told Caixin over WeChat.
"I haven't felt as good the last couple of days," he said. "It is getting harder to breathe."
Beijing monthly magazine Portrait reported that Dr Li's wife - who was not in Wuhan - had been anxiously waiting for updates on her husband's condition hours before he died.
The Wuhan hospital where Dr Li worked said on its Weibo account that he died at 2.58am local time yesterday.
Reuters has been unable to reach his family.
After his death, the government appeared to make an effort to ease public anger.
"He died after unsuccessful efforts to save him," the Wuhan government said in a statement on its website. "We express our deep condolences and regret! We pay tribute to how he stood at the front line to fight the epidemic and offer our sincere condolences to his family!"
A commentary by state-run CCTV said Dr Li's experience "reflects the shortcomings in our epidemic control and response", and "we need to learn from that".
The Global Times posted a commentary saying "we must be united to do the utmost to save the lives of other patients, and to keep more people from being infected by the virus that Dr Li was among the very first to warn of".
His treatment by the authorities triggered memories of how China was accused in 2003 of trying to cover up a major outbreak of Sars, a previously unknown virus believed to have emerged from the wet markets of Guangdong province before spreading into major cities and other countries.
Ms Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst and China Media Bulletin director at Freedom House, said the public outcry over Dr Li looked "widespread and unified", but it is still unclear how big a turning point it could be, given that other national tragedies such as a 2008 high-speed rail crash had incurred similar public reaction that later petered off.
Portrait, which spoke to Dr Li's colleagues and extracted some of his posts from his Weibo account, described him as a man who was concerned for society. In an interview with Caixin on Jan 30 after he was hospitalised, Dr Li said he had been worried the hospital would punish him for "spreading rumours". But even though he had been given a warning by police, he felt he had to speak up.
"I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don't approve of using public power for excessive interference," said Dr Li.
When asked by Caixin when he was still receiving treatment in hospital last month what he planned to do next, he said: "After I recover, I still want to go back to the front line. Now, the epidemic is still spreading. I don't want to be a deserter."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG