Dr. Li Wenliang’s death on February 7, 2020 resulted in an unprecedented spontaneous outpouring of grief on China’s social media. The young ophthalmologist was widely identified as one of eight whistleblowers punished for sounding the alarm about a new SARS-like disease spreading in Wuhan in late December 2019. After receiving an admonishment notice from local police, Li returned to work at Wuhan Central Hospital. He contracted coronavirus, and passed away soon after. Li became a uniquely emotive focal point of public backlash against the heavy-handed opacity cloaking the earliest weeks of the outbreak. He revealed the police notice against him, adorned with his thumbprinted guarantees that he “understood” the nature of his error and would refrain from repeating it. These pledges soon became iconic, as did his statement in an interview with Caixin that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.” Though the Supreme People’s Court criticized Wuhan police for their treatment of alleged whistleblowers, Li’s admonishment was not formally revoked until after his death. This injustice elevated the doctor to an almost folkloric status akin to that of tragically wronged figures from Chinese tradition such as Yue Fei or Dou E.
Li’s final Weibo post, from February 1, reads: “Today, the nucleic acid test results came back positive. The dust has settled, there is finally a diagnosis.” Following his death in the early hours of February 7, hundreds of thousands of netizens flocked to this final post to express themselves in the comment section. Censorship organs moved quickly to stop the deluge, demanding that media outlets “control the temperature.” They tried. But the comments did not stop. They became a trend, and then a tradition. More than a year after the young doctor’s death, hundreds of thousands of netizens have persisted in writing on his Weibo, building a living memorial—China’s Wailing Wall.
On the night of Li’s death, the comments were singularly focused on his passing and the toll of the pandemic. The messages changed over time. Netizens began to share their economic anxieties, their outrage over a child rape case, and their hopes for free speech. The Wailing Wall is also a bulwark of memory. As Chinese authorities attempted to recast their early pandemic response as an unqualified success, they flattened the nuances of Li’s apparent political views into a two-dimensional image of a loyal Party member, painting those who remembered his criticism of the system as “hostile forces.” When Li was conspicuously absent from a September ceremony in Beijing honoring pandemic heroes, netizens returned to Li’s page in droves, vowing to remember him.
Selected posts from Li’s replies have been archived at CDT throughout the past year, primarily on our Chinese site. This April, Zhou Baohua and Zhong Yuan, researchers based at Shanghai’s Fudan University, published a broader view of the Wailing Wall’s content, using automated analysis to parse 1,343,192 comments left by 776,449 Weibo users in the 364 days from Li’s death. CDT has translated most of Zhou and Zhong’s contribution to the knowledge of grief, the pandemic, and online speech in China. In addition, we have supplemented the translation with illustrative selections of translated posts from Li’s replies. (Because CDT’s focus is on content that is censored or especially vulnerable to censorship, these selections do not reflect the same balance of sentiments as shown in Zhou and Zhong’s graphs.)