‘Online wailing wall’: How Chinese netizens continue to honor Li Wenliang, COVID-19 whistleblower

Society & Culture

Illustration by Alphabetes

“It’s been said that in a society like this, the biggest act of rebelling is not forgetting. I hope I won’t forget.”

 

It’s been 53 days since Dr. Lǐ Wénliàng 李文亮 died in a Wuhan hospital. Thirty-nine days before that, he identified the as-yet unnamed novel coronavirus as a disease with devastating potential, and for his efforts was reprimanded, along with seven other doctors, by local police.

The response to his death, from everyday people, was an outpouring of grief and anger. While the outrage has since subsided, the uneasiness surrounding his story — from his muzzling to the ways the government has tried to co-opt his story and claim him for its own — lingers.

On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, the late ophthalmologist continues to attract visitors and followers. Li now has more than 1.4 million followers — the majority of which began following him after his death.

What’s more, thousands of people have left comments under his posts, and continue to do so. As of the time of this publication, Li’s final Weibo post from February 1 — in which he confirmed his coronavirus test as positive — has 170.1K forwards, 2.85 million likes, and 705K comments. New comments pour in every day, seemingly every minute.

Many voices that otherwise might not be heard have turned to Li’s Weibo, a page that lives on as a memorial to Li’s life and deeds — as well as a sounding board for people who have things to get off their chests.

The ordinary hero

In late December, Li posted in a private group on the messaging app WeChat about a SARS-like illness found at Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. But his warning, far from gaining the traction it deserved, elicited the displeasure of local authorities. Cops summoned him to the local police station, where he was required to sign a letter of reprimand and to promise to “stop illegal activities.” “If you are stubborn and do not repent, and continue with your illegal activities, you will receive legal punishment. Do you understand?” the letter read. Li replied, “I understand.”

Three weeks later, Wuhan was under lockdown due to this virus. Li, working to treat patients, was infected himself not long after, and died from COVID-19 in the early morning of February 7, after efforts to resuscitate him failed. He left behind a pregnant wife and five-year-old child.

Chinese social media blew up, particularly as people awakened to the critical role of freedom of speech. The hashtag “We want freedom of speech” trended on Weibo, with more than two million views within half a day before being deleted by censors. A quote from a Caixin interview Li gave in his final days — “A healthy society should not only have one kind of voice” — was also widely posted. Unsurprisingly, these voices were soon muzzled, too, just like Li’s.

But censors haven’t scrubbed everything.

 

“If the fire could have been put out earlier here, flames wouldn’t have spread around the world.”

 

Li’s Weibo page remains intact. Scrolling through the late doctor’s posts, there is little that really stands out. There are posts about food, soccer games, TV shows he likes, complaints about the price of goods, reposts of some funny video blogs. A post from him on November 9 shows photos of the Great Wall and reads: “How beautiful! I’d like to take Li, Jr., to visit it someday.”

It is Li’s ordinariness that has struck people, and it’s what makes his death weigh so heavy. One of the comments on his Weibo reads: “Why is our sadness toward Li Wenliang’s death so sharp? Because we witnessed someone just as ordinary as you and me, a gentle and professional doctor, a friend, a son, a husband, and a father suffering for us.”

The Wuhan Police Department issued an official apology to Li’s family and to exonerate him on March 20. But it was an act deemed too little, too late.

The “online wailing wall”

On Li’s Weibo page, some express their anger toward the handling of the issue; some share their own struggles during this difficult time; and some simply want to say hi, as if to an old friend: “Hey Li, the weather’s nice today in Wuhan,” one person posted. “Spring is here.”

Online users have even given Li’s Weibo account a name: the online wailing wall. This is the place where they can express their sadness and helplessness, a virtual gathering place for more than a million people who share similar emotions and want to feel a little less alone.

“I don’t like the idea of tagging Li Wenliang as a hero,” one person said. “Telling the truth should be commonplace, a choice all of us should make in everyday life. Any ordinary person, thinking critically, can bring change to society.

“I hope our society won’t need martyrs, but just ordinary people who speak the truth.”

 

“Morning, Dr. Li. I was taking a taxi home yesterday. The driver talked about you with me, with his voice trembling. You’re very missed here.”

 

One of the commenters, @黄孔作 (huángkǒngzuò), who uses a sketch of Li Wenlaing as his avatar, told me that he visits Li’s Weibo once a day as a kind of daily pilgrimage. “I think every voice makes a difference,” he said. “If we all just stand by and watch, that’s tacit assent for despots and scoundrels. We can’t stay silent anymore. That’s the least we can do, for our part.”

Another Weibo user, a high school student in Shandong who goes up @M氣貫長虹 (qìguànchánghóng) online, said, “I’m only 17, the epidemic is the first big public issue I’ve been through in my life. And every aspect of it has left an impact on me. I think what Dr. Li did helped my generation formulate our values. His sacrifice shouldn’t be forgotten.”

“Our generation will soon be at the helm,” she said. “We need his spirit to guide us forward.”

This “online wailing wall” may well be demolished one day. Knowing this, the Chinese edition of China Digital Times, based out of the University of California, Berkeley, has kept screenshots of select comments to preserve this part of Li’s legacy.

Here are some examples:

@am79: If the fire could have been put out earlier here, flames wouldn’t have spread around the world.

@Cantabile_刘小慧: It’s been said that in a society like this, the biggest act of rebelling is not forgetting. I hope I won’t forget.

@外厝JK: Wuhan is going to lift the lockdown soon, but discrimination against people from Hubei is still ubiquitous. A spiritual virus is more terrifying than a physical one.

@fjcinese: There was a downpour in Wuhan yesterday, as the city was crying for the deceased. Wenliang, your ash is collected by Wuhan people, by people from all over the nation.

@SuddenlySneezed: Doctor Li, today marks the 49th day of your departure. It’s raining heavily. The day when my mom passed away, five years ago, it was raining like this too. My mom cooked the most delicious Sanxian noodle in the world. I miss her so much.

@关关的2020之陆溪: Amid this disaster, some people have become mere statistics in reports, some merely a “404” error. This sadness will soon be replaced by an atmosphere of joy, and we will see faces brimming with the happiness of victory.

@柔情不蜜意: Morning, Dr. Li. I was taking a taxi home yesterday. The driver talked about you with me, with his voice trembling. You’re very missed here.

@以以尔: You’ve been on this world. You’re remembered, so you will stay alive forever.

@xylon喜龙: Dr. Li, please tell me, are you truly in heaven? Someone says the mortal world is the real hell.

@永远得9527: The cloud layer is so thick. Those who are beneath the layer don’t dare to speak but only to expect the daybreak in silence.

@汲屋主人: It’s horrible if you turn a blind eye to the sufferings of mankind. It’s even more horrible if you don’t even allow others to see that suffering.

@忘记不了的永恒: I hope your Weibo won’t disappear. Every time I open it, I see stars through the darkness and their everlasting glory.