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Whistleblower Doctor Who Died Becomes 'Face' of Speech Suppression in China 


Undated photos show Chinese Dr. Li Wenliang, who was punished for issuing an early warning about the coronavirus, whose death was confirmed Friday, Feb. 7, at the Wuhan Central Hospital, China.

Anger erupted across Chinese social media after the death Friday of Dr. Li Wenliang, who had been punished for issuing an early warning about the coronavirus.

Posters calling Li a hero accused the Chinese government of trying to cover up the virus. The hashtag “I want freedom of speech” trended on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, receiving 1.8 million views before censors took it down.

Another hashtag, “Farewell Li Wenliang,” trended as high as No. 11 on Weibo. Memes crafted from movie scenes were subtitled with text praising Li and admonishing Beijing officials.

“Dr. Li Wenliang is a hero of the Chinese people and should not be treated like this, they are liars!” one Weibo user wrote.

One user posted a link to a White House petition asking President Donald Trump to nominate Li for the Nobel Peace Prize. Another expressed despair, however, that Li’s death wouldn’t matter.

“No major changes will happen following the end of this epidemic, except some local officials might be sacrificed to ease the anger that mounted in the mass,” the Weibo user wrote.

“They will forget it soon like they always do," the user said.

Artistic tributes abounded. One of the most popular memes: a sketch of Li wearing a hospital mask, modeled after his familiar photo.

In one version, barbed wire was wrapped around Li’s face like the hospital mask, symbolizing the government’s move to silence him after sounding the alarm about the virus in December.

One Weibo user posted an illustration of a doctor with angel wings lifting up a patient. A hand emerges from the sky with scissors, snipping at their wings.

Chinese social media screeners were systematically blocking content critical of the government, according to the South China Morning Post.

After censors blocked the hashtag, “I want freedom of speech,” users switched to “CanYouManageDoYouUnderstand.” That also was blocked by Weibo.

A former law professor, Xu Zhangrun, published an article criticizing the government’s response to the coronavirus updates. It went viral on Chinese social media before it was banned. The article was pulled as well. Posts of screenshots of it would disappear or not display.

Off social media, memorials for Li were set up in front of Wuhan Central Hospital and in Hong Kong. The memorials use the photograph of Li looking into the camera wearing his mask.

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