Li Wenliang, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, was punished for warning family and colleagues about a mysterious “SARS-like virus” before either the Wuhan or central governments had acknowledged an emerging coronavirus epidemic. CCTV reported on the official censure, framing it as a story on “rumors” and ending with a reminder that all netizens must “abide by relevant laws and regulations and refrain from creating, believing, and spreading rumors, [to] build a harmonious and sunny cyberspace.” Li returned to work, and days later contracted the virus. As censors were scrambling to contain public criticism of early government response efforts–which seemed to prioritize propaganda and information control over public health–they ordered a story on the ailing Dr. Li offline. While in the hospital, Li accepted interviews with domestic and foreign media, where he shared his opinion that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society,” and stressed a desire for “more openness and transparency.”
At 2:58AM On February 7, Dr. Li died, and censors quickly began work “controlling the temperature” of relevant news and commentary. Despite censors’ best efforts, netizens launched a series of viral Weibo campaigns demanding the free speech promised to them by their constitution, condemning the government’s treatment of Li, and mourning Li as a martyr in the fight for free expression.
Li was a longtime Weibo user, and on February 1 he shared his last post from his hospital. “Today, the nucleic acid test results came back positive. The dust has settled, there is finally a diagnosis.”
In the two months since his passing, as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in China and across the world, Chinese netizens have been gathering where Li shared his final post. The digital location, which one Weibo user called an “internet Wailing Wall (互联网哭墙), a place for people to place kindness,” has over three million likes and 880,000 comments, as of the time of this posting.
Reporting on China’s internet Wailing Wall, The New York Times’ Li Yuan describes the sentiment she found scrolling through thousands of comments left on March 26–the day that Wuhan began allowing residents to collect ashes of the deceased, and also the 49th day after Li’s death (in Chinese Buddhist tradition, the seventh day of the seventh week is believed to be when reincarnation occurs):
Users feel comfortable talking to Dr. Li. They know he will never scold them or judge them for what they say. They know, after reading his more than 2,000 posts, that he was a gentle and kind soul. He was an ordinary person just like them who enjoyed food and fun and sometimes got tired of working such a demanding job. He would understand.
[…] @关于我死亡之前要做的事儿: I played with my phone for a long time but couldn’t find anybody to talk to. So here I am. I can talk to you.
[…] Because many people see him as an ordinary person wronged by the authorities and as a hero who stood up to power, they come to him to express their frustration that justice and righteousness haven’t prevailed.
[…] Some people complain that the comments are censored, an allegation that is difficult to prove. They worry that his Weibo account could be deleted, just like many others. Then, they will lose the only place they can take a break from a world that has been turned upside down.
[…] But most people just want to tell him that they miss him and wish him the best in the next world. […] [Source]
One of the commenters, @黄孔作 (huángkǒngzuò), who uses a sketch of Li Wenlaing as his avatar, told me that he visits Li’s Weibo once a day as a kind of daily pilgrimage. “I think every voice makes a difference,” he said. “If we all just stand by and watch, that’s tacit assent for despots and scoundrels. We can’t stay silent anymore. That’s the least we can do, for our part.”
Another Weibo user, a high school student in Shandong who goes up @M氣貫長虹 (qìguànchánghóng) online, said, “I’m only 17, the epidemic is the first big public issue I’ve been through in my life. And every aspect of it has left an impact on me. I think what Dr. Li did helped my generation formulate our values. His sacrifice shouldn’t be forgotten.”
“Our generation will soon be at the helm,” she said. “We need his spirit to guide us forward.” [Source]
Occasionally, a critical note on the political context in which Li died can be found on the wall, but the majority of comments are commonplace, cordial, loving messages written to a trusted friend. However, uncertain of how long this digital space of remembrance will remain accessible, CDT Chinese editors have been archiving a selection of comments daily since March 11. Several of the comments posted between March 31 and April 9 have been translated below:
@大诚至真1372：Dr. Li, I lost my job. The good thing is that I don’t have much debt, my mother still has a retirement pension. I am almost 40, and still using her money. Sigh, not sure how you are doing over there, wish you well!
@xzayf为战而来：The world should be kind to good-hearted people.
@dieyiqingyun：As WeChat has been deleting posts mourning you, I am becoming increasingly frightened by this country. What can be done?
@五月长角：Dr. Li, now I know our government has no sense of shame. It doesn’t even pay the healthcare providers who are fighting the virus….
@楚楚不动人888：Dr. Li, state media is sparing no effort to cover the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, but they don’t say a word about Wuhan.
@桃籽籽籽：Good morning, Dr. Li. School finally reopened yesterday, and I got to see my lovely beasts. The kids were well-behaved, but the teachers all wore masks. It felt uncomfortable wearing a mask while lecturing, so I took it off after class. I can’t imagine what it’s like to wear a mask all day, the way you did.
@致敬227大团结：#PullDownTheGreatFirewall# (#扳倒网络长城#) is our most urgent task.
@青青7738：Hello Doctor Li. Today I read online that the U.S. returned our masks because of their substandard quality, and so did the EU. I feel terrible. This isn’t just a matter of a manufacturing defect, this is about China’s integrity. How is the world going to perceive us? How are we going to position ourselves in the international community? I really hope our fellow Chinese are as honest as you.
@天涯一渔：“Preventable and controllable.” “There is no evidence of human-to-human transmission.” A missed opportunity for prevention and control, leading to the epidemic’s spread, and in the end over 3,000 are killed in the tragedy! Aside from the Great Leap Forward-era “10,000 jin per mu” and “36,900 jin per mu,” are there any rumors more malicious [than “Preventable and controllable” and “there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission”]?
@独立与理性：You didn’t have to sacrifice your life. We’ve already dealt with SARS. You represent honesty, kindness, and integrity in the hearts of the people. Like a blossoming flower, some invisible and powerful hand ripped you apart and threw you to the ground. How can we not ache for you?
@不做咸鱼的大叔：Dr. Li. My pregnant wife was scheduled for a check up on February 27, but it turned out some of our contacts had tested positive. I was worried about infection, and recommended she not go to the hospital. My wife went into labor early, almost two months before her expected due date. She almost didn’t make it. I am 35, excited to become a father for the first time. But things could have been much different……. I am with my daughter as I write you, she sleeps smoothly in my arms as I watch spring arrive through the window. She is at peace and fell asleep at my arm. The world is good, I hope you can see it!
@花香满衣123：Because of my comments on WeChat, I was also reprimanded by the police. I wrote a letter of repentance guaranteeing not to do it again. I am scared and saddened. How did you feel when the police scolded you, were you afraid?
@不开心的苏肥肥i：Another sleepless night. Been feeling a lot of pressure lately. The company has already laid off many of my co-workers, and I don’t know for how much longer I can keep my job.
@刘北席yu：Remember to exercise, like you did in college. Take care of your health on the other side. Good night, my brother.
@老男孩js77：Dr. Li, I didn’t sleep well at night, and it’s almost time to make breakfast for my son. I’m a little excited because he is about to return to school today. This winter break has been too long, schools have been closed for over 70 days. He’s been taking classes online from home, but his myopia deepened again. I’ve been worried for days, as he plays with the tablet too much. It’s hard to raise a kid nowadays.
@我是大叔而且还是得了抑郁症：Wuhan’s lockdown ended. But many people still have an unsolved problem in their minds. Do we really have zero new confirmed cases? What about those who have tested positive but show no symptoms? Is it really beginning to disperse?
@蔷薇滴下的水：If there is no accountability, how can you rest in peace??? [grieve][grieve][grieve]
@微荧照夜：Wearing this crown of a virus on my head, I am also Wenliang! The knifesmith of Weibo, let me also comment! Knifesmiths (the name for the professionals who castrate eunuchs) are exceptionally busy, castrating the distinct voices of the people, leaving society with only a single voice. How many ideological eunuchs have been created? “A healthy society should not have only one voice,” said Wenliang.
@千黛子：Dr. Li, Wuhan is free. It looks like we have beaten the virus, but we dare not say more. I am overwhelmed by the songs of praise surrounding me. Everybody is now calling you a martyr, a hero of glory and honor. But what is that glory shining upon? Is everybody beating their chest, proud of their country? Are we all about to rise up in excitement? Is there hope for rejuvenation? Everybody in China cried endlessly two days ago [during the Tomb Sweeping Festival], but what about after we’re done crying? I don’t know.
@MeetDaying：I am also dealing with insomnia. When you were gone, I asked you to find me a boyfriend, someone cute as you. Then you really did send me one from heaven, he is now going to propose to me. Brother, could you please tell him to not rush it, because I am a slow-starter and not yet ready to be a bride. You know, if anything goes wrong, the matchmaker will be held responsible! [Source]
With the day beginning in China as this post is published, the most recent comments on the Wailing Wall simply offer Li and all other visitors a good morning: “Doctor, good morning. Today is another day for me to try to be happy.” “Brother, I’ve come again to see you, to wish you happiness.” “Have a peaceful morning.”