A whistleblowing Wuhan doctor hauled in by China's state security police after he and colleagues tried to warn the authorities about the coronavirus has died of the disease, sparking an outcry on the country's usually tightly regulated social media platforms.
Li Wenliang, 34, was one of eight medical professionals in the central Chinese city of Wuhan who tried to warn colleagues and others about a newly discovered virus similar to SARS amid silence from health officials.
After he reported that seven patients had contracted the virus, he was visited on Jan. 3 by police, who forced him to sign a statement admitting to having spread "rumors."
Li then developed a cough on Jan. 10, fever on Jan. 11 and was hospitalized on Jan. 12, after which he began having trouble breathing.
His death was confirmed early Friday, prompting a deluge of messages of mourning and outrage at his treatment at the hands of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang of this hospital, who was unfortunately infected during the fight against the pneumonia epidemic caused by the novel coronavirus, died at 2.58 a.m. on Feb. 7, 2020 after efforts to save him were in vain," the Central Hospital of Wuhan said in an announcement on its official Weibo account.
The announcement garnered hundreds of thousands of comments, many of which hit out at the lack of transparency around the epidemic on the part of Chinese health officials.
“Here's hoping that there are no more lies in heaven," @weichudemeng wrote, while @Photographer_an_sir called on the government to "treat his family well."
"May your journey be peaceful Dr. Li," wrote @sssoul_liiin, with a crying emoji. "You were totally awesome in this life."
@Xia Wanye added: "Thank you for trying your best to protect us," with weeping and candle emojis.
Family unable to view body
User @Toake78 commented: "It wasn't a rumor, but the world was drunk. Then we woke up alone, with the good doctor already gone."
Li's mother told RFA that the family had been unable to say farewell to his remains, which had already been cremated.
"We weren't allowed to see him, such a shame," she said. "His ashes have been temporarily placed because his wife hasn't arrived yet. They have a five-year-old son."
She said Li had appeared to be on the road to recovery, but his condition had deteriorated sharply in the last two days of his life.
A total of 31,526 confirmed coronavirus cases was reported on Friday, the majority of which are still within China's borders.
Residents of Wuhan left flowers for Li outside the gate of the hospital on Friday.
Rights activist Wang Aizhong said the claim that Li had been "rumor-mongering" was nonsense, because Chinese officials had already notified their U.S. counterparts about the disease.
"The Chinese government knew that this was no rumor, but the Wuhan police and the state media said that Li was spreading rumors," Wang said. "This is totally inconsistent with the facts."
Wuhan activist Zhang Renqiang said Li and his colleagues were "true heroes."
"He's a hero now, and the whole world knows it," Zhang said.
Gag order in media
A journalist surnamed Chen said there had been a gag order on the media around Li's death on Thursday night similar to that surrounding the death of late Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo.
He said the authorities have announced an "investigation" to make it look as if the central government will bring justice to the situation.
"The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced at noon that they will send a team to investigate," Chen said.
"That way, people will be guided to imagine a kind of Judge Pao scenario," he said, in a reference to a popular figure from imperial China who brought corrupt officials to book.
"They may fire some of the low-ranking cops [as scapegoats], or it may be that nothing will happen at all," he said.
Chen said Li was likely denied testing, diagnosis and treatment after he first got sick, and was left to fend for himself by buying globulins at his own expense.
"His diagnosis wasn't confirmed until Feb. 1, indicating that he didn't get much attention," he said. "We think now that this was a form of retaliation."
"Last night they didn't start administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation until after his vital signs were gone," Chen said. "There was a delay."
Li's wife sent an appeal for help after his death, saying that she, her parents and brother are also infected and in isolation, and that there is a five-year-old child left with nobody to care for him.
Repeated calls to her cell phone rang unanswered on Friday.
Repeated calls to Wu Zhequn, director of the science and technology division of the Wuhan police department, also rang unanswered.
Journalist harassed by police
Li received a visit from the police after sending out a message to former classmates on Dec. 30 that read: "Seven cases of SARS have been diagnosed in the Huanan Seafood Market, and have been isolated in the emergency department of our hospital."
He was repeatedly called in for questioning by his bosses and police, and warned off saying any more.
He was repeatedly questioned even after being hospitalized.
Citizen journalist Fang Bin said he has also been repeatedly questioned and harassed by local police after he posted video of the situation on the ground at an Wuhan hospital.
He has refused to comply and has repeatedly called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to admit that he is in the right.
"I told them that everything they do is rude, simplistic and dumb," Fang told RFA. "The whole world gets what I, Fang Bin, have been doing."
"You should go back and tell them that the Chinese government has to admit that Fang Bin was right," he said.
Rights activist Huang Yongxiang said the authorities aren't quite sure how to handle people like Fang.
"If the whole truth about the epidemic is made public, it's definitely going to cause panic, but if it isn't made public, it will harm their efforts at prevention and control," Huang said.
"So the authorities are in a dilemma."
Reported by Jia Ao and Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.