The death of the whistleblower Chinese doctor Li Wenliang has aroused strong emotions across China. Social media is awash with posts mourning the death of a martyr who tried to raise alarm over the coronavirus but was taken into a police station instead for “spreading false rumours” and “disrupting social order”.
Grief quickly turned into angry demands for free speech. The trending topic “we want freedom of speech”, which attracted millions of views, and links to Do You Hear the People Sing, a song popularised in recent Hong Kong protests, were quickly censored by police.
In an unusual move, the Communist party’s powerful internal discipline enforcement agency swiftly announced it would dispatch investigators to Wuhan to look into “questions raised by the masses” associated with Li. The Chinese authorities are starkly aware that anger and raw emotions could easily boil over and spill on to the streets.
As in the past when health or safety scandals broke, it is likely the Chinese government will fire a few local officials to douse public anger. But this will only be an expedient measure that will not resolve the real problem – its citizens’ lack of a right to free speech.
We might remember a similar health crisis 17 years ago when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic, which also originated from China, infected more than 8,000 and killed about 800 across 17 countries. In 2003 the authorities covered up the disease for months before another whistleblowing doctor, 72-year-old Jiang Yanyong, exposed the crisis. More recently Jiang, now 88, has had his contacts with the outside world cut off and movements restricted after he asked the authorities last year to reassess the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. He is now confined to his home by the authorities.