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Doctor’s death from coronavirus triggers calls for freedom of speech in China

This combination of pictures created on February 7, 2020 shows undated photos obtained on February 7, 2020 of Chinese coronavirus whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang whose death was confirmed on February 7 at the Wuhan Central Hospital, China.
This combination of pictures created on February 7, 2020 shows undated photos obtained on February 7, 2020 of Chinese coronavirus whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang whose death was confirmed on February 7 at the Wuhan Central Hospital, China. Reuters/Li Wenliang

Chinese media's reporting of the death of coronavirus whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang ignited online anger after he was first pronounced dead, then alive and, finally, dead again. Li, 34, died early Friday, Wuhan Central Hospital said in a post on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform, after contracting the virus while treating a patient.

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Doctor Li died on Friday in Wuhan after being infected with the virus, sparking a massive outpouring of grief and anger online in China.

For many Chinese, his death symbolised the government’s inertia to deal with the outbreak.

He was one of the first, in December, to warn of the virus. Instead of listening to him, authorities sent the police who told him not to “spread rumors.”

State broadcaster CCTV first reported on Weibo that Li had died late Thursday. But its posts were deleted after the news became the top topic on the popular platform.

'Emergency treatment'

Chinese media outlets then said Li was under "emergency treatment", before finally announcing his death at about 3:00 am Friday (1900 GMT).

After doctor Li tweets went viral on social media, Beijing decided to send in a team from the powerful Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to Wuhan, the country’s anti-graft agency, to look into “issues of public concern relating to Li Wenliang,” indicating that Beijing takes the public outpour seriously and possibly looking for scapegoats to divert the heat off Beijing.

The Wuhan City Government was quick to issue a three-line statement expressing “condolences and regret,” paying “tribute for his fight in the front line against the epidemic,” but heads may roll as Wuhan’s authorities are reproached to have initially tried to deny the severity of the disease and its rapid spreading.

Sparking anger

The hashtag "Dr. Li Wenliang dead" was the most searched topic on Weibo late Thursday, with over a billion views and over 1.1 million comments.

But by Friday morning it had dropped out of the top 20 trending topics.

Soon after, Weibo users complained that their posts and comments on the doctor's death were being deleted on Weibo and messaging app WeChat, sparking anger at what was seen as an attempt by authorities to muzzle public opinion.

The state-controlled – but probably most liberal – Chinese media outlet Caixin News reported openly about Li’s death.

“Justice is less important to me”

“An ophthalmologist in Wuhan, Li received national attention after China’s top court in Wuhan critised police for reprimanding eight Wuhan citizens for “spreading rumors” about an illness in late December. Li is considered to be one of the eight, although the police did not identify who specifically they had accused or punished.

“It’s more important that people know the truth,” Caixin quotes Li as saying. “Justice is less important to me.”

Even the normally hardline Global Times jumped on the bandwagon but can’t prevent itself from not-so-subtle finger pointing: “Many said the experience of the eight "whistle-blowers" was evidence of local authorities' incompetence to tackle a contagious and deadly virus.”

People’s war

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping told US President Donald Trump that China has declared what he called a “people’s war” on the virus.

“We have adopted the most comprehensive and strictest prevention and control measures,” he was quoted by state television station CCTV as saying in a telephone conversation.

“We have declared a people’s war … [and] are fully confident and capable of fighting the epidemic. The long-term trend of China’s economic development will not change.”

But the virus is starting to hit China’s – and the worlds’ - economy as well.

“Worse than Sars”

The Financial Times reports that copper traders in China have asked miners “from Chile to Nigeria” to cancel or delay shipments.

Beijing’s attempts to contain the virus by sealing off huge metropolises and shutting down transport nationwide have affected the economy in general.

And the Citigroup warned that the effect of the virus "will likely be worse than Sars (Severe acute respiratory syndrome, a disease of the Corona-virus family that also originated in China and cost the lives of over 800 people) for China and globally."

The bank explains that the illness has spread much faster than Sars, and global responses to block travel China related travel and transport “have been much more draconian, compounding the demand shock from the large scale behavioural risk avoidance that was so apparent during Sars.”

The bank points out that a disruption in China will have a much larger effect than 15 years ago, as “China now accounts for a third of global growth versus only 10 per cent during the Sars period.”

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