Death Of Whistleblowing Doctor Li Wenliang: The Future Of Freedom Of Speech In China


Early on 7 February 2020 at Wuhan Central Hospital, Dr. Li Wenliang, aged 34, lost his battle to the novel coronavirus he had warned of just over a month before. On 30 December 2019, Li, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, notified medical school classmates on a private WeChat group, reminding their “family members and loved ones to be alert” having witnessed seven diagnoses of a SARS-like (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus at the hospital. Within 24 hours, screenshots of Li’s messages had been leaked and circulated, and on 1 January 2020, local police authorities detained Li and seven other medical staff for “spreading rumors” and “severely disturb[ing] public order”. Having since been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO) with over 60,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 1,300 deaths, the authorities’ initial response to Li’s whistleblowing actions and his ultimate death have provoked widespread discourse amongst the Chinese and international communities on the human right to freedom of speech in China.

In an interview with Caixin on 1 Feb 2020, Li himself asserted that “[a] healthy society should not only have one kind of voice”. On the day of his death, Weibo content related to his passing reached 1.5 billion views on the microblogging site. The Weibo hashtags #WuhanGovernmentOwesDrLiWenLiangAnApology and #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech had over 2 million views within three hours of Li’s death, but later disappeared from the site, sparking further controversy.

Others propose that China’s management of the crisis is symptomatic of its systemic political culture of maintaining party image. Director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Professor Tsang, suggests that the primary incentives “to do what the party wants…and not to embarrass the party” result in a disinclination towards whistleblowing. Regional Director of Amnesty International, Nicholas Bequelin, deemed Li’s death a “tragic reminder” of the government’s “preoccupation with maintaining ‘stability’”, which “drives it to suppress vital information about matters of public interest”. Professor of Political Economy, Hofung Hung of John Hopkins University cited China’s “centralized system” and “lack of freedom of the press” as reasons for the “delay [of] a necessary aggressive early response…”. Dissident Chinese intellectual, Xu Zhangrun, additionally condemns the government’s promotion of a culture of silence, and argues that the virus outbreak has “revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance”.

Notorious for its restrictions on freedom of expression and speech, the outburst of public dissent on Chinese social media platforms in the wake of Li’s death is an unusual, and thus notable phenomenon. It signifies a collective conscience that values the individual voice for the benefit of the many and desires greater transparency and accountability from their leaders. Beijing’s responses to the whistleblowing incident appear somewhat to acknowledge this public opinion. On Thursday, party chiefs of Hubei province and Wuhan were removed from their posts. China’s largest anti-corruption agencies, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission, have also announced a joint investigation in Wuhan “into the problems reported by the public concerning Dr. Li Wenliang”. Nevertheless, the motive to minimize criticism in the service of retaining public image is likely still the overriding influence on the government’s decisions.

The outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan is one of many events that continue to reveal the restricted human rights conditions in China. Desires to uphold the reputation and public image reign over the public, and governing authorities. However, the wave of support for Dr. Li Wenliang is a hopeful hint of freedom of speech in China yet to come. Effective utilization of social media platforms, stimulated by sentiments of empathy and justice, may come to prove a peaceful and powerful mechanism for change.

Naomi K L Wang