'I want free speech': Death of doctor who warned of coronavirus sparks outrage in China

7 February 2020, 14:39

Li Wenliang died earlier this week
Li Wenliang died earlier this week. Picture: PA
Rachael Kennedy

By Rachael Kennedy

The death of a doctor who was reprimanded for giving early warnings about coronavirus has ignited an online movement of anger directed at the Chinese government.

Li Wenliang, 34, died at a hospital in Wuhan on Thursday after contracting the SARS-like illness.

He had previously been targeted by police for "making false comments" and "spreading rumours" when he sent messages to family and friends with early warnings about the outbreak that later went viral.

But in response to news of his death this week, hundreds of thousands of messages were posted to the doctor's social media account mourning him as a hero, and a man "willing to speak the truth".

"A hero who released information about Wuhan's epidemic in the early stage, De Li Wenliang is immortal," the chief scientist of the China Centre for Disease Control, Zeng Guang, wrote on Chinese social media Weibo.

Flowers and messages were also left outside the doors of Wuhan Central Hospital - where the doctor worked and died - and a message of "farewell" was scrawled onto a snowy riverbank in Beijing.

Flowers were left outside Wuhan Central Hospital
Flowers were left outside Wuhan Central Hospital. Picture: PA
The message reads: 'Farewell to Li Wenliang'
The message reads: 'Farewell to Li Wenliang'. Picture: PA

But the tributes on social media later sparked further debate and anger from Chinese users who say the government had tried to cover up the growing threat of coronavirus by previously smearing De Li.

"I want free speech" and "the Wuhan government owes doctor Li Wenliang an apology" were topics that were trending on Weibo on Thursday evening.

Both the topics and other critical posts on the social network appeared to have been removed by the following morning.

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In a statement, Amnesty International said Dr Li's death was a "tragic reminder of how the Chinese authorities' preoccupation with maintaining 'stability' drives it to suppress vital information about matters of public interest."

It added: "China must learn the lessons from Li's case and adopt a rights-respecting approach to combating the epidemic.

"Nobody should face harassment or sanctions for speaking out about public dangers, just because it may cause embarrassment to the government."

In a tweet, the World Health Organisation said it was "deeply saddened" by the doctor's death.

It added: "We all need to celebrate work that he did on coronavirus."

The global death toll from the virus how now reached 636, while the number of confirmed cases has surpassed 30,000 people.