February 6 marked the four-year anniversary of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, a young ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital whose attempts to warn colleagues of an emerging novel coronavirus made him an heroic symbol of free speech and principled resistance. Punished by his employer and forced to sign a letter of admonishment, Dr. Li later contracted COVID-19 in the course of his work at the hospital and died.
Since then, the comments section under Li Wenliang’s final Weibo post has become known as China’s “Wailing Wall,” a place netizens come to mourn and to celebrate, to mark personal milestones or comment on current events, and to wish Dr. Li well and assure him that his sacrifice will not be forgotten. (CDT Chinese editors archive Wailing Wall content and produce a Chinese-language video feature monthly; the most recent video appears below.)
This year, as usual, many Weibo users left comments on the Wailing Wall to wish Dr. Li a Happy Lunar New Year, tell him that he will be remembered, and inform him about personal milestones, local weather, and other news. Some visitors left a simple “red candle” emoji. Many online tributes mentioned his most moving and memorable quote, “There should be more than one voice in a healthy society,” spoken during an interview with Caixin journalists while Dr. Li was ill with COVID in an isolation ward in Wuhan.
The newly published China Digital Times Lexicon, 20th Anniversary Edition, contains a more detailed explanation of Dr. Li’s life and death, his courage and legacy, the “Wailing Wall” below his last Weibo post, and his most indelible quote. The full lexicon entry is reproduced below:
There should be more than one voice in a healthy society.
一个健康的社会不应只有一种声音 (Yīgè jiànkāng de shèhuì bùyīng zhǐyǒu yīzhǒng shēngyīn)
Oft-cited words spoken by COVID-19 whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang in an isolation ward in Wuhan, during an interview with Caixin journalists.
Wuhan Central Hospital ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang was officially reprimanded in early January 2020 for spreading “fictitious discourse” about the outbreak of a “SARS-like virus”—the outbreak that began the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Li later contracted the virus while working on the frontlines in Wuhan, and died in the late hours of February 6, 2020 (although the news of his death was delayed, and government sources still list it as February 7). Prior to his death, as he was confined in a hospital isolation ward, Dr. Li gave a January 30, 2020 interview to Caixin journalists, during which he made the following statement:
Caixin: On Jan. 28, China’s Supreme People’s Court published a commentary on its official WeChat account on whether the punishment of the eight Wuhan “rumormongers” was appropriate. [The eight were publicly reprimanded by police, which the commentary said had been excessive and possibly harmful.] You were probably not one of those eight. What did you think when you read that article?
Li: After reading the Supreme Court’s article, I felt a lot of relief and didn’t worry too much about how my hospital would deal with me. I believe there should be more than one voice in a healthy society. I don’t agree with the use of public power to overly interfere.
In the three years since Dr. Li’s death, the comments section under his final Weibo post has attracted hundreds of thousands of comments—perhaps millions, but Weibo has long since stopped tallying them—by visitors from all walks of life. It has come to be known as “China’s Wailing Wall,” and serves as a repository for the hopes, dreams, worries, and opinions of countless Chinese citizens. CDT editors periodically collect and publish selected comments from the Wailing Wall, and CDT maintains extensive Chinese and English archives of past comments. In 2021, CDT translated extensive excerpts from a study by Zhou Baohua and Zhong Yuan, two researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai, who analyzed—with some unavoidable omissions—the contents of the Wall. In their conclusion, they wrote:
Netizens’ collective writing stands outside of the bureaucracy and the media, creating a unique memory of the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times. [In general,] private, daily practices of “etching [events] into memory,” “refusing to forget,” or “checking in” all indicate a conscious effort to reject amnesia and preserve memory. […] Li’s Weibo comment section has […] given rise to a new written experience of collective memory in the internet era.
Another study from 2021, by Yingdan Lu, Jennifer Pan, and Yiqing Xu at Stanford University, noted that the period surrounding Dr. Li’s death showed a brief, rare inversion of the dominant pattern of political trust in China:
Between the two largest bursts of discussion in this time period—the January 23 Wuhan lockdown and February 7 death of Dr. Li Wenliang—criticisms of the central government increase dramatically while support for the central government declines precipitously, falling, by February 7, below the level of support directed at local governments. Over the past decades of China research, numerous studies have consistently found that trust in and satisfaction with the central government is high, and always higher than that for local governments (Jiang and Yang, 2016; Lu and Dickson, 2020; Shi, 2001; Tang, 2005, 2016; Truex and Tavana, 2019; Zhou et al., 2020). With the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, we observe a deviation from this pattern. Weibo users are taking the central government to task for censorship and information manipulation, questioning a core feature of the Chinese political system.
This inversion was short-lived, but a comment left on Dr. Li Wenliang’s Wailing Wall the following month referenced the doctor’s words and noted that the situation for freedom of speech and expression had not improved:
@八管传说: Dr. Li, China is finally coming around the bend of the pandemic. You said that there should be more than one voice in a healthy society. Now they won’t even let a magazine interview get published. I hoped the epidemic would change some things in China, but in the end nothing has changed at all.
CDT’s Wailing Wall archive is compiled by Tony Hu.