'I Want Freedom of Speech' China Censors Hashtag After Coronavirus Doctor's Death Sparks Anger

Published February 7th, 2020 - 06:23 GMT
Chinese coronavirus whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang © AFP PHOTO / LI WENLIANG
Chinese coronavirus whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang © AFP PHOTO / LI WENLIANG

 A Chinese doctor who had been reprimanded for issuing an early warning about coronavirus has died of the disease, triggering a wave of public mourning and rare expressions of anger against the government online.

Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang became one of the most visible figures in the crisis after he took to Chinese social media to reveal what he saw about seven cases of coronavirus. He and seven other whistleblowers were reprimanded by the Wuhan police for spreading “illegal and false” information. 

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

His death at age 34 became the top-read topic on China’s microblogging site Weibo, with over 1.5 billion views, and was also heavily discussed in private WeChat messaging groups, where people expressed outrage and sadness.

Some who were more critical of the government included the hashtag #IWantFreedomOfSpeech in their posts mourning Li’s death, saying “the Wuhan government owes Doctor Li Wenliang an apology” and “we want free speech.”

However, that hashtag was soon censored on Weibo, and anti-government posts were all gone the next morning. 

Li’s case is critical for China’s leadership after Beijing was accused of covering up the full extent of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003. Beijing has called for transparency in the current crisis, and local officials have been called on after public blame over their handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which punishes official corruption, said it would send investigators to Wuhan to probe “issues raised by the people in connection with Dr. Li Wenliang.” 

“The CCDI has now sent an investigation team to carry out a full probe in response to public concerns and to allow people to look forward to the revealing of the full truth,” they said in a statement.

So far, China’s National Health Commission said the outbreak has killed 636 people and infected 31,161 in the country.

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