Several Chinese state media outlets reported the death of Dr. Li Wenliang on Thursday, only to delete their reports a few hours later and publish new bulletins indicating he remains in critical condition at Wuhan Central Hospital.
No explanation was offered for why the death of Li, who was arrested for “spreading rumors” after providing one of the earliest warnings about the true danger of the coronavirus epidemic, was incorrectly reported by state-controlled media.
Li was one of eight people notoriously arrested in December for “rumor-mongering” by warning colleagues about the highly contagious nature of the Wuhan virus. He went on to contract the virus in January from one of his patients and has been hospitalized for several weeks.
His death was widely reported on Thursday morning, to the great dismay of the Chinese public, which expressed anger that a heroic whistleblower died from the coronavirus after suffering mistreatment by the authorities, and fear that a 34-year-old man in seemingly good health could die from the disease. According to official Chinese government reports, most of the roughly 560 people who have died from the Wuhan virus to date were elderly or had serious medical conditions before they contracted the disease.
The first indication of Li’s death was a Twitter post from China’s state-run Global Times, which would have been intended for an international audience since Twitter is banned in China. The tweet has since been deleted, along with various stories in Chinese media about his death including a post by the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Daily.
“In the fight against the pneumonia epidemic of the new coronavirus infection, our hospital’s ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was unfortunately infected. He is currently in critical condition and we are trying our best to resuscitate him,” Wuhan Central Hospital said on Thursday afternoon in a statement quoted by CNN, suggesting he was still alive.
An earlier statement from the hospital said, “During the fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at our hospital, was infected. Efforts to save him were ineffective. He died at 2:58 a.m on Feb. 7. We deeply regret and mourn his death.” The Global Times later published a tweet with similar language.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Li Wenliang. We all need to celebrate work that he did,” said the World Health Organization in a tweet that was also subsequently deleted.
Foreign Policy anointed Li the “first virus martyr” when news of his death was published, noting that a large-scale scrubbing of news and social media posts about him commenced immediately.
FP was skeptical of the subsequent claims that Li is still alive, suspecting Beijing is trying to determine whether it can sell angry citizens on the image of Li as a Party hero who gave his life trying to protect the people:
As news of his death spread like wildfire on social media, however, previous reports were deleted, as were threads about him—one of which had recorded 5 million comments—and the claim was put out that he had been “resuscitated” though was still “in critical condition.” It may be that Li was truly lingering on the edge of death. Or it may be that the government was terrified of the possibility of making a martyr. There are claims that Li’s body was literally strapped back into life support when the extent of public anger online became clear. In the end, his employer stated he had died at 2:58 am Friday.
The New York Post reported that at least two friends of Li have reported his death, one of them doing so in a post on Weibo (the Twitter-like service that Chinese subjects are allowed to read) that also called for the government of Wuhan to apologize for harassing him.
Li was not just arrested in December, but humiliated by local authorities. The doctor was forced to sign a letter that patronizingly read, “We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice. Is that understood?”
It should be noted that while he felt obliged to sign the letter, Li never stopped using his Weibo account to challenge inaccurate government reports about the virus, including persistent false claims that it could not be spread between humans.
The South China Morning Post sifted through the “chaotic messaging” from Wuhan Central Hospital and concluded its last statements indicated Li is dead. According to this report, the last grim declaration from the hospital “capped several chaotic hours in which Chinese media first reported Li’s death, only for the hospital to respond that Li was alive, though in critical condition.”
If the confused messaging was an effort by the Chinese Communists to manage public grief and anger over Li’s mistreatment, illness, and death, it does not appear to be working – although the good news, from Beijing’s point of view, is that much of the outrage has been focused on easily scapegoated Wuhan officials rather than dictator Xi Jinping or the national government.
The SCMP quoted several furious posts on social media:
Chinese social media has been awash with anger over the death of the whistle-blower – some mourning Li’s death with candles, some demanding that the authorities apologise for the way they had treated him.
“None of the police has ever apologised to you. You could have been a national hero, but the dereliction of duty has claimed your life, along with a few hundred innocent lives,” a user said on Weibo.
“The reprimand of Doctor Li will be a shame in China’s anti-epidemic history. Doctor Li alerted the public at the expense of his life. Wuhan police station still hasn’t recalled that reprimand notice even after his death,” another Weibo user wrote.
“Dr. Li’s fate is a singularly delicate issue for the Chinese government, which has tried to fight back against the coronavirus, while also stifling widespread criticism that officials have delayed and mismanaged the government’s response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan,” observed the New York Times, which thought the reports of Li’s death were more poorly sourced than the ones that claimed he was clinging to life.
The BBC and the Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, judged Li is more likely dead. The BBC cited “journalists and doctors at the scene” who said “government officials had intervened” after Li’s death was announced, ordering the story changed to reports that a last-minute medical intervention saved his life. Later in the afternoon, the story changed again and his passing was once again reported with a revised time of death.