The coronavirus that first erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan only made global news in late January. But Li Wenliang tried to raise the alarm on it in December. He was one of eight doctors who posted accounts of the virus online, fearing that it showed human-to-human transmission. The response from the local government was to send police to threaten him and force him to sign a statement saying he wouldn’t make further trouble. The written statement said, “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?”
Li is now dead. His death was reported this morning by multiple outlets, including the highly respected Caixin and the party-owned Global Times. 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.
Li was confirmed to have the virus on Feb. 1. At just 34 years old, Li is one of the youngest known victims of the coronavirus. He is not the first medical worker to die, which was the 62-year-old Liang Wudong, and he will not be the last. There are estimates that over 500 health care workers are already infected. It may be that official media is struggling to find a line to tell his story. While the whistleblowers have won applause from a central government eager to blame the local authorities for the failure, spreading news of his death is clearly much riskier, especially as Beijing cracks down on journalists, doctors, and ordinary citizens speaking out.
But Li’s death is not just because of the coronavirus. As the Confucian philosopher Mencius asked, “Is there any difference between killing a man with a stick and with a sword? … Is there any difference between doing it with a sword and with governmental measures?” The cover-up of the potential epidemic that Li and the others attempted to raise the alert on helped kill him—just as surely as it has helped condemn, so far, hundreds of others to death.