Chinese Citizens Revolt Online After Whistleblower Doctor Dies of Coronavirus

Chinese officials had detained Dr. Li Wenliang for speaking out about a new SARS-like illness before the outbreak began

Dr. Li Wenliang
Photo: Weibo

In a rare public display of anger, Chinese citizens revolted on social media Thursday night after a doctor who had previously been detained by police for trying to warn of the new coronavirus died from the disease.

Citizens posted on China’s Weibo and WeChat social media sites with the hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech to express their outrage over the Chinese government’s early attempts to hide the threat of disease, as well as anger about Dr. Li Wenliang’s death.

Li, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, had been detained by police after posting in his medical school alumni group about the threat of a new, SARS-like virus that turned out to be the new coronavirus at the beginning of January. Police said Li had been “rumor-mongering” and held him for two days, until he agreed to sign a document that stated he made “untrue statements.”

Li returned to work at the hospital, where patients were coming in with the deadly respiratory illness. He developed a cough on Jan. 10 and was formally diagnosed with coronavirus on Saturday. He died Thursday, Wuhan Central Hospital confirmed.

That night, Weibo and WeChat filled with anger-filled posts about his death.

“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 WeChat, The New York Times reported. “Tonight is a monumental moment for our collective conscience,” he wrote in another post.

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Another poster wrote: “A system that won’t allow truth finally kills an honest, brave, and hard-working citizen. We should be not only angered but also ashamed! Why can’t people have freedom of speech? Why can’t we question?”

That post and more than 2 million more under the #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech were quickly censored or deleted, The Washington Post reported. Li’s name is currently the most censored term on Weibo, according to, a site that exposes the blocked terms on the Twitter-like social network.

“He was an ordinary figure, but a symbol,” Zhang Lifan, an independent historian in Beijing, told the Post about the online rage. “If it weren’t for the epidemic and nobody could leave their home, there would likely be demonstrations right now. Officials are absolutely concerned.”

There are now 31,530 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus worldwide, the majority of which are in mainland China. As of Feb. 7, 638 people have died from the illness — all but two deaths were in mainland China.

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