Two Sides of a Coin: Dr. Li Wenliang’s Tragedy and China’s Approach to the Pandemic

Written by: Wenzhe Teng

After living through the Covid-19 Pandemic for two years, I am sure that you are sick of all the Covid news. Yet I am here to remind you all about Dr. Li Wenliang, the first but definitely not the last suppressed messenger of this plague. As the world returns to normalcy, it is imperative for us to learn his story, to mourn this hero, and to learn the lesson he brought to us, sadly, with his life.   

Although the controversy regarding the origin of the virus remains heated, the first major and publicized outbreak is in Wuhan, China. On Jan 24, 2020, as millions of Chinese families gathered to watch the Chinese New Year’s Gala, they listened to the emotional hosts talking about the Covid-19 pandemic happening in Wuhan. A day earlier, the disease control headquarters at Wuhan announced a quarantine of the whole city, the first time in modern history a city of ten million people self-isolated to contain the disease. 

In addition to quarantining Wuhan, the Chinese government displayed a level of effectiveness unseen in other countries. Factories nationwide started to produce masks and ventilators. Two hospitals were built in Wuhan in ten days. Many cities with few cases moved into quarantine, while local bureaucrats and volunteers patrolled the streets. These disease control policies were very strict, but in retrospect, they were also very effective in minimizing the virus. In late March 2020, China added around ten new cases every day and successfully defended a small shock in April. The two rapidly constructed hospitals closed in mid-April. Claiming a deserved victory, China did not return to normalcy, instead, the state continued to impose strict regulations, including a 21-day watch period from foreign travelers. This January, Yuzhou, a city with four times the population of Madison, Wisconsin, went into full-scale lockdown after finding three cases.

From 2020 to 2022, everyday citizens in China have been free from the threat of Covid, despite a few minor outbreaks. Up to February 2022, China had 108,000 cases and less than five thousand deaths. Meanwhile, the United States had seventy-eight million cases and nine hundred thousand deaths. With four times the population, China had 0.13% of America’s cases and 0.5% of America’s deaths. 

One might ask if China could do better, perhaps eliminating the virus before the first outbreak. Unfortunately, what made China effective against the pandemic was what made it ineffective to prevent the initial outbreak, as Li Wenliang’s tragedy suggested.

At 33 years old, Dr. Li was an ordinary ophthalmologist working in a Wuhan hospital. On December 30, 2019, one of his patients was diagnosed with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a deadly virus that once plagued Southern China in late 2002. Li did not know that his new discovery, the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, or the Coronavirus) would take his life. On the same day, Wuhan CDC was sending out internal warnings about several unidentified “pneumonia” cases, and an investigation was on the way.

Li posted his concerned report to a WeChat group, a popular Chinese social media similar to Facebook or Snapchat, of his college alumni and suggested SARS infected cases in Wuhan. Although Dr. Li requested confidentiality for his information, people in the WeChat group spread the news about the infected cases, causing a small-scale panic on the internet. 

The next day, the supervision department at Li’s hospital tracked down and blamed Li as the source of an online rumor. According to another doctor at Li’s hospital, the hospital initially was going to fire Li, yet he ultimately went unpunished.

On Jan 3rd, 2020, four days after the internal disciplinary measure, police from Wuhan Public Security Bureau Wuchang District Sub-bureau, summoned Li for “publishing untrue information online.” In addition to interrogation and threats of prosecution, Li was also forced to sign a letter of admonition promising never to spread rumors again. 

Dr. Li continued to treat patients. On Jan. 9th, he developed a fever and had some pneumonia-like syndrome. This was the date when China officially identified the Coronavirus and began to implement disease control policies. The next day, his condition became serious, and on Jan. 12th, he was hospitalized and quarantined. While he took many tests in the hospital, he tested positive until January 30. Dr. Li died on February 7,leaving behind his pregnant wife and young child. He was one of the four thousand Chinese people who died in the early days of the pandemic. 

Dr. Li’s death attracted national attention, as hundreds of millions of people mourned him on social media. At UW-Madison, Chinese students created a small memorial for him at Bascom Hill.

Li was indeed a hero for working as a doctor during the pandemic. However, the Chinese public had much more to express through mourning him. First, in early February, the future of the pandemic was unclear, and China still had the most cases in the world. The public was dissatisfied with the government’s inability to control the pandemic, and the loss of an innocent doctor reinforced this sentiment

Second, the public outrage centered around the governmental suppression of Dr. Li’s alleged “rumor.” As Li’s colleagues recall, public health administrations actively silenced the health care workers: “The leaders of the hospital have issued notices one after another, not allowing doctors to talk about the epidemic in private, not allowing doctors to disclose the objective facts of human-to-human transmission of the new corona pneumonia virus to the outside world, and not allowing “alarmist” doctors to disclose the real situation of the hospital privately.” Instead of taking precautions, every level of leadership in Wuhan’s health care system focused on avoiding panic, maintaining order, “emphasizing discipline and organization.”

There was one very concerning detail. According to a doctor in Wuhan Central Hospital, “the medical staff in the emergency department, respiratory department, and ICU of the hospital usually wear medical masks to work, but after the outbreak, the medical staff in these three departments asked the hospital to wear N95 masks. After consideration, the leader agreed to the requests of these three departments, but at the same time asked the medical staff of other departments not to wear masks to work.” Dr. Li worked at the ophthalmology department, and he was not allowed to wear a mask!

Most importantly, Li Wenliang’s story clearly displayed the government’s active suppression of free speech. People already knew that the government is suppressing certain speech, but they were shocked to learn how sub-bureau police, the lowest level of the Chinese police apparatus, held such a great amount of power over the citizenry. Through threats and intimidation, the police abused their power to control innocent citizens’ speech, let alone their dissents. The letter of admonitions Dr. Li signed went public, and people saw the forceful rhetoric. By reading the letter, one could imagine the humiliation and panic suffered by a respected doctor. 

Western media, including NPR and BBC, called Li “a whistleblower.” But Li was no Snowden or Daniel Ellsberg. Li did not confront the state to expose government wrongdoing, and he barely informed the public about the pandemic. It was his tragic death that showed the public how far the government’s attack on free expression has gone. 

Instead of the “whistleblower” branding, the New York Times presented an insightful report on Li Wenliang’s tragedy: “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” Dr. Li told The Times, “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.” By mourning Li, the Chinese public demanded transparency and rights of free expression.

China successfully and forcefully suppressed both Dr. Li’s message and the pandemic. The tragedy of Li Wenliang showed the other side of China’s pandemic control, and it will remain a permanent scar on China’s otherwise glorious record against Covid. 

In the US, there were also many incidents where leadership suppressed crucial information about Covid. President Trump knew that Covid was “more deadly than even your strenuous flu” before the first cases appeared in America, yet he repeatedly downplayed the virus’ threat in the early days of the pandemic. In the same period, Dr. Fauci told the public that masks were not effective against Covid, because he wanted to make sure health care workers had access to masks. Governor Andrew Cuomo rewrote the report regarding the deaths of nursing home residents so that he could brag to the media about his success in New York. 

Nevertheless, it was very difficult to compare Chinese and American cases. The suppression of Dr. Li was done by the Chinese Comminist Party, while the suppression of information in the United States was done by individual politicians, such as President Trump and Governor Cuomo. One might say that US politicians had a tendency to lie, but there were hardly any local bureaucrats or state agencies to enforce their lies onto the public. Instead, there were whistleblowers coming out against governmental malfeasance. While American citizens enjoyed the rights of freedom of expression, the rampant Covid misinformation in the US did require some rethinking by the American public.

Another difference between China and America was on pandemic response; the Chinese state effectively and forcefully controlled the pandemic, while the American government writ large  had a slow and ineffective pandemic response. 

As the world moves away from the Covid pandemic, we must reflect on the lessons, including both China’s and America’s, and create a system of openness and effectiveness. Let’s hope that Dr. Li and millions of others did not die in vain.