Dr. Li Wenliang was one of eight initially unnamed “rumormongers” whose punishments for “spreading illegal and false information” about the coronavirus outbreak were used by Wuhan authorities and state media as warnings to the public. The revelation last week that all eight were frontline health workers in Wuhan trying to warn others about the disease added fuel to public anger about the official response to the crisis. When Li later became infected by the virus, authorities ordered coverage of the news offline. While in the hospital, Li accepted interviews with domestic and foreign media, in which he voiced his thoughts that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society,” and his desire for “more openness and transparency.”
Public ire again spiked on Thursday in response to news that Dr. Li had passed away. After some confusion fueled by subsequent reports that he was still undergoing treatment, his death was confirmed. Netizens began to demand their freedom of speech en masse, using the hashtag #WeWantFreeSpeech (#我们要言论自由#). When that topic was shut down, CDT Chinese editors note, they quickly resumed their call under #WeDemandFreeSpeech (#我们要求言论自由#).
CDT Chinese has archived a large collection of comments under the initial hashtag, a selection of which are translated below:
@胖***锡: On this night, the discussion topic of free speech appeared on Weibo. It lasted for an hour and a half and accumulated 400,000 views. Is it true that freedom can only go so far?
@H***_: #WeWantFreeSpeech for you and for me
@塔***o: In accordance with Article 35 of the PRC Constitution, #WeWantFreeSpeech
@马***智: #WeWantFreeSpeech I am a human being. An independent, lively human being. I deserve to have the most basic human rights. I am a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, I deserve to have every right bestowed upon me by the PRC Constitution.
@拨***豆: #WeWantFreeSpeech Dr. Li is owed an apology no matter what. This is not just about freedom of speech. No matter how long and splendid our history is, if we do not have cultural freedom, we’ll always be limping in other people’s eyes.
@住***街: What a joke. As a citizen of PRC, I can’t even use this #WeWantFreeSpeech tag anymore. Which constitutional clause grants power for this? Waiting for an answer. Urgent.
@蚂***啦: I saw with my own eyes as the blue characters between the #s turned black [became censored/controlled]. Do we righteous people have to bear witness to this infinite darkness? Do you enjoy deleting Weibo topics? Fine. I’ll just repost. #WeWantFreeSpeech
@雨***船: A system that won’t allow truth finally kills an honest, brave, and hardworking citizen. We should be not only angered but also ashamed! Why can’t people have freedom of speech? Why can’t we question? Why don’t we have the right to know? Why does the press have to be the government’s mouthpiece? Why do we have to be quiet and deferential while you are domineering and tyrannical?
@黑***鼠: Isn’t free speech a citizen’s basic right? Why do we descend to begging for something that belongs to us?
@K***o: #WeWantFreeSpeech #WeWantFreeSpeech The gravestones in the cemetery only have good people’s names, and not a single bad person’s name. They never die, they always live among the people.
@骑***: Remember your anger. This is not the end but a very small beginning. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after, a greater anger will arise, but we must persist. If we are all destroyed by anger, then why does this land exist? #WeWantFreeSpeech
@学***恩: #WeWantFreeSpeech I hope my country can be the people’s country. I hope my compatriots can all be uncontrollable citizens.
@t***林: #CanYouDoIt? #DoYouUnderstand? #WeWantFreeSpeech. I am a legal citizen of the People’s Republic of China, and I want all the legal rights granted to me by the Constitution. I will never do it, I will never understand. [“Can you do it?” and “do you understand” were the questions that Li had to answer and sign on his official admonishment. The latter phrase became a forbidden word on social media.]
@垂***片: #WewWantFreeSpeech. I want the world that the Constitution endows me with.
@于***语: #WeWantFreeSpeech Hahaha, we don’t have it. In a few moments, this topic will change from blue to black, and won’t be able to be posted.
@烟***记: #WeWantFreeSpeech! It’s been snatched away for so long and should be returned to us!
@和***: We have sung countless times that unity is power. Remember? We really want to hold together! Today’s Doctor Li is the future for all of us regular people. Unity is strength! This time, we really want to leave our opinions, and hold tight! #WeWantFreeSpeech
@1***宙: #WeWantFreeSpeech Freedom of speech and assembly are rights that citizens of the People’s Republic of China should have. Don’t treat them like a gift.
@哈***精: When I was a kid, we were all told to be honest. It is written in textbooks, children’s books, and at the metro station. Everyone tells you to be honest and speak the truth. But life tells you that if you tell the truth, you won’t survive. Then what should us ordinary people do? Do we seal our lips and remain silent or do we give up on freedom of speech? —I do not understand, I can’t.
@T***_: We want free speech. Why should we want to live inside a wall, why can’t we speak the truth, how is this any different from a closed country?
@孤***菜: How can the news serve only those in power? Like this, can it be real news? I can’t trust those in power, I think they will just paint it so everything looks peaceful and good. I need free speech, the world and society should not have only one voice.
@孤***菜: #WeWantFreeSpeech Hahaha, deleting posts already? You guys don’t have days off even during this epidemic? Your bosses don’t treat you like humans. Nor does your country.
@水***x: I’ve been a netizen for the past 20 years. I’ve seen this wall go up one brick at a time. Every time I’d think maybe we had hit rock bottom, and maybe we’d turn things around this time. But that never happened. The bottom keeps getting lower. Reality is ever more unbelievable. It’s so unbelievable that even the normal life that we were promised as kids seems far fetched now. #WeWantFreeSpeech We are not gods. There is no perfect speech. We can’t ensure that everything we say is the ultimate truth. But this is the meaning of freedom.
@一***酱: #WeWantFreeSpeech Justice can never be eliminated. Because truth will always live.
@飞***年: No taxation without representation. We are taxpayers. We are citizens. We are not the so-called “people.” We have our rights. We want free speech!
@C***西：#WeWantFreeSpeech I’m very moved by the words of my fellow netizens. Looks like there is real power within the virtual. I don’t know whether or not this angry night will be forgotten, I don’t know if the empathy brought about by news of this death will fade after a moment. Will the heartbeat and hot-blood of this moment disappear in a flash? I don’t know. But what if this moment can turn into 10,000 moments?
@韩***3：In 18th century France, extremely strict censorship gave birth to a large number of underground booksellers who steered clear of spies, customs, and the police, taking manuscripts to Switzerland to complete the printing process. Smugglers carried boxes of books across mountainous terrains and walked approximately 340 kilometers to a secret warehouse in Troyes, France, where the books were then circulated into Paris through various underground routes.
Even if there are repeated 404s, we must still speak up.
When people want to speak, they will do it even if they have to climb across the Alps in complete darkness. #WeWantFreeSpeech
@是***_: #TheHeroWhoWarnedUsWithHisLifeHasLeft, but we must remember who labeled him a so-called “rumormonger!” If you must label what I say as rumor, then so be it. We don’t want free speech, we want the power to remain angry. One day, we will hold his picture and stand in the street. We will save that admonition notice and one day we will pay our respect. One day, when we are again labeled rumormongers, we will have the power to say:
I do not understand! [Chinese]