Widespread Outcry in China Over Death of Coronavirus Doctor

The doctor, Li Wenliang, had been silenced by the police after warning about the new coronavirus that has killed hundreds in China and sickened thousands.

They posted videos of the Les Misérables song “Do You Hear the People Sing.” They invoked article No. 35 of China’s Constitution, which stipulates freedom of speech. They tweeted a phrase from “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

The Chinese public has staged what amounts to an online revolt after the death of a doctor, Li Wenliang, who tried to warn of a mysterious virus that has since killed hundreds of people in China, infected tens of thousands and forced the government to corral many of the country’s 1.4 billion people.

Since late Thursday, people from different backgrounds, including government officials, prominent business figures and ordinary online users, have posted numerous messages expressing their grief for the doctor, who contracted the new coronavirus, and their anger over his silencing by the police after he shared his knowledge about the virus. It has prompted a nationwide soul-searching under an authoritarian government that allows for little dissent.

“I haven’t seen my WeChat timeline filled with so much forlornness and outrage,” Xu Danei, founder of a social media analytics company, wrote on the messaging platform WeChat.

“Tonight is a monumental moment for our collective conscience,” he wrote in a later post.

Though there are some outspoken dissidents in China, their numbers have dwindled as the Communist Party under the leader Xi Jinping has cracked down repeatedly on lawyers, journalists and businesspeople over the past seven years.

In this highly censored society, it’s rare for ordinary people to make demands and openly express anger toward the government. It’s even more rare for officials and heads of big corporations to show emotions that can be interpreted as discontent with the state.

After speculation of Dr. Li’s death began swirling online Thursday evening, the Communist Party’s propaganda machine went into full gear, trying to control the message. But it didn’t seem as effective as it had in the past.

The outpouring of messages online from sad, infuriated and grieving people was too much for the censors. The government even seemed to recognize the magnitude of the country’s emotion, dispatching a team to investigate what it called “issues related to Dr. Li Wenliang that were reported by the public,” though without specifics.

For many people in China, the doctor’s death shook loose pent-up anger and frustration at how the government mishandled the situation by not sharing information earlier and by silencing whistle-blowers. It also seemed, to those online, that the government hadn’t learned lessons from previous crises, continuing to quash online criticism and investigative reports that provide vital information.