On February 7, 2020, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Central Hospital of Wuhan, passed away from a new disease he had warned his colleagues about in a WeChat group just six weeks earlier. His warning leaked to the internet, alerting the public for the first time to the novel coronavirus spreading in Wuhan. Authorities reacted quickly, branding Li a rumormonger. In an admonishment notice from the local police station, Li was told to “stop the illegal behavior. Can you do this?” He responded “Yes.” Then they warned him, “If you are stubborn, refuse to repent, and continue to carry out illegal activities, you will be punished by the law! Do you understand?” He wrote, “Understood.” Li returned to his medical practice until he too fell ill. From his sickbed, he told Caixin news that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.” In understated Weibo posts, Li shared updates on his prognosis until his death. On the night of his passing, Weibo commenters wrote “I can’t” and “I don’t understand” under his final post in defiance of the admonishment notice he was forced to sign. His death sparked an outpouring of anger and demands for free speech from Chinese internet users, using the hashtag #WeWantFreeSpeech (#我们要言论自由#).
A year has passed but the comments under Li Wenliang’s final post continue unabated. His Weibo has become a digital Wailing Wall where people across China gave voice to their grief and pain. They have also shared their quotidian joys and small victories: their love of fried chicken (one of Li’s favorite foods) or a new puppy. His final post is now a remarkable collection of notes tucked into the stones of a plague year. At CDT, we translated a selection of the posts made in the days before the one-year anniversary of his death, which serve as a digital testament to truth, grief, and love:
@李家凡: It’s now the first anniversary since your last Weibo post. Dr. Li, on Saturday I’ll buy some fried chicken and drink a toast to you.
@何小宝520: Dr. Li, I’m here looking [at your Weibo] once again. It’s been another year. Recently, there have been some violent attacks against doctors. As always, the response has just been calls for change without any real action. As a fellow healthcare worker, I’m bitterly disappointed. It’s hopeless to change professions. In medicine we’re all just like the walking dead, trying to get through this. This world isn’t worth the trouble. I am unable to comprehend the essence of life, but I still love living it. We are just ordinary people, not heroes.
@傻了八極: Good afternoon, Dr. Li. Compared to them, you are the true hero. The people will never forget you.
@林舍舍N: After seeing how serious the pandemic has now become, I miss you even more. If you hadn’t been treated unfairly at the time, then our days would have been much better. I also wouldn’t have become the way I am now, almost unable to go on living. I hate those bureaucrats!
@喳喳出: Dr. Li, the whole world is watching the investigation of the origin of the coronavirus. Who could have guessed that our nightmare would become the world’s nightmare. Dr. Li, even after you left us the world is still in stifling, suffocating darkness.
@长岛冰茶_ice: Dr. Li, this morning I learned that someone in leadership is leaving my company. He was the best I have ever met at my workplace, bar none. I’m very sad to see him go and can’t help but cry. Farewells always come too soon.
@Grouge: Good morning, Dr. Li. I arrived safely at home. The feeling of coming home was really great. When I saw my grandparents still waiting for me at such a late hour, I was brought to tears. A sense of belonging is so important. I hope that everyone who is about to set off on the road home can arrive safely and smoothly.
Li’s legacy as whistleblower, hero, and victim is contested by the state. In April, Chinese authorities designated Li Wenliang a martyr for his work on the frontline of the epidemic. But Li was noticeably missing from a national ceremony honoring medical workers presided over by Xi Jinping in September. A Global Times article published on the anniversary of his death sharply criticized international observers for “sensationalizing” his death to “smear China.” Chinese citizens have their own interpretations of his death, which has inspired both music and poetry, including “Wen Liang,” “Mourning Li Wenliang,” and “Please Remember Them.” On the anniversary of his death, some left bouquets of chrysanthemums outside of Wuhan Central Hospital, where Li worked. Another man’s attempt to build a memorial to the 4,000 dead of Wuhan, including Li Wenliang, was foiled by authorities. Li Wenliang’s Wailing Wall remains as an enduring record of public sentiment.
Translation by Anonymous.