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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

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Tribute to Li Wenliang, the doctor who discovered covid-19

Ialmost It has been three years since Li Wenliang posted his last message on Weibo, a Twitter-like service. “Today’s nucleic acid test was positive. The dust has settled and the diagnosis is finally confirmed,” the ophthalmologist wrote. A week later, on February 7, 2020, covid-19 killed him. However, his Weibo account is still alive and well.

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As the disease, now free of China’s “zero coronavirus” restrictions, sweeps the country, @xiaolwl has become a mecca for a steady stream of tourists. Every three or four minutes someone would comment on his parting words. “Brother Liang, I’ve been reading Camus’s “The Plague” recently,” an article on January 10 hinted at the disaster that was taking place.

Li Wenliang is a household name in China. Many Chinese hail him as a whistleblower who was among the first to draw attention to the pandemic in the central city of Wuhan three years ago and have suffered for his honesty. In late 2019, he sent a private message to a group of former medical school classmates on WeChat, another popular social media platform, about the detection of several SARS– similar situation. He told them to be vigilant. Within hours, officials forced him to write a “self-criticism” for leaking “false information.” On January 3, 2020, police made him sign a warning that any repetition of his “illegal conduct” could result in prosecution.

After Li’s death, his Weibo account became a lightning rod for public discontent. It was flooded with thousands of messages of condolence and sympathy for the injustice he suffered. The numbers dwindled quickly, but people continued to comment on Lee’s last message. By mid-2020, the counters started showing “1m+”. Weibo stopped updating the number at that time. But Zhou Baohua and Zhong Yuan, researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai, calculated more than 1.34 million in the year following Li’s death. In some cases, they said in a 2021 paper, numbers would skyrocket, such as in March 2020, when the government withdrew the notice of blame against him, and the following month, when provincial authorities recognized him as a “martyr”.

The tribute to Li Ka-shing (not because of whistleblowing, but because he was a Communist Party member who was fearless in the face of the new crown virus) has reassured his supporters to some extent. It helps that many Chinese are supporters of a zero-coronavirus strategy until at least 2022. Still, in September 2020, when Chinese leaders honored hundreds of heroes fighting the coronavirus at a massive ceremony in Beijing, Li Wenliang was not among them, much to the dismay of some.

But rather than becoming a forum for dissent, Li’s Weibo account has taken on a different color: a “wailing wall,” as Chinese media have described it. Visitors often post about their daily ordeals. They turn to Lee for help in their love life and exams. Some simply wished him good morning or good night. One of the emoji they use is a fried chicken leg. Li likes fried chicken.

Since China began lifting controls on the outbreak in December, some have used Li’s wall to vent their anxieties. “Brother Liang, the old people in our village and nearby are dying one by one,” said a tourist from Shanxi province. “We are basically all infected now. Fortunately, the mutated virus is weaker, but many people are dying,” said another person from neighboring Shaanxi. “Doctor Li, the wall is full of death notices. Many old people failed to survive the winter, including my grandfather.” The Zhejiang native said with emotion.

Most weepers avoided attacking the official line directly. But the scenarios they describe stand in stark contrast to government claims that only a few dozen people have died from covid since early December. On the wall and other Weibo accounts, netizens quoted Li’s most famous quote from an interview shortly before his last tweet: “For a healthy society, there should not be only one voice.” Despite his fame as a whistleblower , but he is a cautious man, saying he does not plan to spread his warnings about coronavirus cases beyond his friends. But the words resonated among some Chinese who were increasingly skeptical of what the government was telling them.

Subscribers can sign up to our new weekly newsletter, The Drum Tower, to learn how the world shapes China — and how China shapes the world. All of our stories related to the pandemic can be found in our Coronavirus Hub.

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