China Is Trying to Rewrite the History of Silenced Coronavirus Whistleblower Doctor Li Wenliang

His death caused an outpouring of rage at the Chinese government's response to the outbreak. Now, Beijing is trying to claim him as a loyal Communist Party foot soldier.
beijing china li wenliang coronavirus

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Li Wenliang, the whistleblower Wuhan doctor whose death caused an unprecedented wave of rage and grief on social media in China, was a loyal and committed Communist Party member who sacrificed his life for the good of the nation.

At least, that’s how Beijing is spinning the story after it published an investigation into his death that exonerates the central government of any fault.


Li, raised the alarm about the coronavirus at the end of December but was silenced and reprimanded by police in Wuhan weeks before the full scale of the crisis was known. He died on February 7 after contracting the virus from patients at Wuhan Central Hospital.

Late on Thursday, officials published the results of an investigation into Li’s death that concluded Wuhan authorities acted “inadequately” when they reprimanded him and failed to follow “proper law enforcement procedure.” Two Wuhan police officers have been disciplined.

But the central government has accepted zero responsibility for Li’s death or the hundreds of others that could have been prevented if the doctor’s warnings were heeded at the end of December.

Li’s death sparked an outpouring of criticism of the central government virtually never seen inside China, as citizens used the doctor as a symbol of their anger at the delayed reaction by President Xi Jinping.

Friday marked the second consecutive day of no new domestic cases in China, and hours earlier Italy’s death toll surpassed China’s. As the number of infections in China has waned, the government has sought to reposition itself as the savior of the world by sending supplies to hard-hit regions, including the U.S., Italy, Iran, and the EU.

But Li’s treatment, and leaked documents, show that the Chinese government covered up the extent of the outbreak in late December and early January — and now the government appears to be trying to whitewash those errors as part of its wider effort to deflect criticism of its failures. Beijing is now pushing back against the image of Li as a whistleblower and a folk hero.


READ: The Chinese doctor who tried to warn the world about coronavirus has died

The official investigation report from China’s National Supervisory Commission consists almost entirely of a sequential recounting of events already generally known. However, a Q&A with a spokesperson from the commission, carried by the Xinhua news agency, makes it clear that the Communist Party wants Li to be seen as a loyal party member rather than a revolutionary.

“Li Wenliang is one member of the medical team who fought heroically and made contributions and sacrifices in the epidemic control effort,” the statement says.

The spokesperson goes on to say that Li’s death was co-opted by people who sought to undermine the government and criticize its response to the coronavirus outbreak.

READ: China Is erasing tributes to coronavirus whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang

“It should be recognized that certain hostile forces, in order to attack the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government, gave Dr. Li Wenliang the label of an anti-system “hero” and “awakener”. This is entirely against the facts. Li Wenliang is a Communist Party member, not a so-called “anti-institutional figure,” and those forces with ulterior motives who wish to fan the fires, deceive people and stir up emotions in society are doomed to fail,” the Q&A said, according to a translation by the China Media Project.

While the spokesperson does not say who the “hostile forces” are, this is a term invoked by Beijing to describe unknown enemies who are fomenting internal criticism of the government.

Cover: A card with a portrait of Dr. Li Wenliang at Li's hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Friday, Feb. 07, 2020. Li, regarded a whistleblower on the pneumonia outbreak, died of the novel coronavirus Thursday night. (FeatureChina via AP Images)