China has exonerated late whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, who was hauled in for questioning by police, who accused him of "spreading rumors" when he tried to alert the authorities about the emerging coronavirus epidemic in the central city of Wuhan.
Police in Wuhan revoked a reprimand they issued to Li, who has since died from COVID-19, and apologized to his family for their treatment of him, official media said.
Li, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, had shared information from a patient's medical records in a WeChat group on Dec. 30, showing signs of infection with a SARS-like coronavirus, the report said.
Detained and reprimanded by police on Jan. 3 for spreading rumors, Li was among eight people to be detained and questioned in Wuhan over "rumor-mongering" around the new disease.
"It turned out that the information they spread online alerting the public of the risks of people-to-people transmission was accurate," the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said in its report on the probe.
Investigators conducted face-to-face and phone interviews with Wuhan officials, party leaders, publicity officers, health experts and police, as well as the local internet censors, the paper said.
"The probe's findings showed that Li did not deliberately intend to disturb public order in posting the information on WeChat," it said, adding that Li was still responsible for passing on the information "without verification."
His employers, who were increasingly in the grip of the developing epidemic, spoke to Li, but didn't sanction him formally, the report said.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Cheng Hai said the official attempt to make amends was largely cosmetic.
"First, there is no ruling that the disciplinary punishment was illegal; second, there was no mention of the positive social impact of Li Wenliang's actions," Cheng said.
"Third, there is no clear apportioning of accountability."
Widespread public anger
The report only said that the reprimand was "inappropriate," Cheng said.
"Li Wenliang's actions were entirely lawful, and there was no legal basis for the reprimand whatsoever," he said. "Neither did they recognize that Li Wenliang's actions didn't endanger anyone, nor did they name who was responsible."
A freelance journalist who gave only his surname Liu said the report was more of a response to widespread public anger at Li's treatment.
"The Li Wenliang affair had a huge impact," Liu said. "If it had merely been a question of online opinion, the government might not have paid it much attention."
He said the ruling Chinese Communist Party normally relies on censorship and total online deletion of negative comments when something goes wrong.
"It wasn't until people started talking about protesting on the streets that they started scrambling to calm things down," Liu said.
He said that since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, his administration has become very tolerant of mistakes, but only among officials who prove their loyalty to the current leadership.
"It doesn't matter how big of a mistake you make; if you loyally implement orders from on high, they will clear up any mess for you," Liu said.
A psychologist surnamed Tan said the report was too little, too late.
"There are still so many unanswered questions, such as what was the role played by the [Communist Party] secretary?"
"The investigation team should have given a much more thorough account."
In Washington, The U.S. Senate passed a resolution honoring Li.
“Dr. Li Wenliang tried to warn the world about the novel coronavirus, but the Chinese Communist Party stood in the way,” said Republican Senator Senators Cory Gardner.
We must ensure that this communicable and deadly virus is contained, and that means that the Chinese Communist Party must not be allowed to hide details of the coronavirus from its people and the world,” he said.
Reports that citizen journalists are still being silenced demonstrate that the Chinese government has not heeded his advice,” said Democratic Senator Ed Markey.
Tycoon still unaccounted for
Li wasn't the last person to run afoul of the authorities after criticizing the government's response to the coronavirus epidemic.
Chinese social media star and property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang is incommunicado, believed detained, after an article critical of the government's response to the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan appeared online.
The article was attributed to one "Ren Zhiqiang," but RFA was unable to verify whether he wrote it.
The article, titled "The lives of the people are ruined by the virus and a seriously sick system," doesn't mention President Xi, but it takes aim at decisions made under his direct command, nonetheless, including the decision to go ahead with a mass Lunar New Year banquet for thousands of people that resulted in a huge cluster of COVID-19 cases in the weeks that followed.
"The emperor is holding up a piece of cloth, trying to cover up the fact that he is wearing no clothes at all, although his ambition to be a strong leader is naked enough," the article quipped.
"No criticism of the mass assembly of 170,000 people has emerged, and the truth has never been uncovered, nor the cause of the outbreak discovered," the article said.
"The covert propaganda around the decisions made during the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic will only deceive those who are willing to be deceived," it said. "It won't mend those families broken by ... lost loved ones."
The article also took issue with the accusation by police that Li and his seven colleagues were "rumor-mongering."
Xi has ordered China's media to follow the party line, focus on "positive reporting", and "speak the party's will and protect the party's authority and unity" when reporting on COVID-19.
Reported by Han Jie for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung and Man Hoi-tsan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.