The Coronavirus Outbreak: Do You Hear the People Sing?

By Shuyan Yan (PO ’23)

On Feb.7th, Chinese social media saw a massive outpouring of outrage and grief due to the death of Doctor Li Wenliang from coronavirus. Li Wenliang was one of the eight people who first revealed the information about several mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan. However, like the other seven, he was soon reprimanded by Wuhan Police for rumor-mongering. The police asked him to sign a statement that forced him to write “I can [stop my illegal behavior]” and “ I understand [I’ll be punished if I don’t stop such behavior].” Later, on January 20th, when the Chinese government confirmed the severity of the virus for the first time, it was revealed that Doctor Li was not spreading the rumor, rather he was a brave whistleblower. 

One thing that has aroused confusion and anger was how Li Wenlinag apparently died twice due to the manipulation and censorship of Chinese State media. While his friends and fellow doctors at Wuhan Central Hospital reported that he died at 10:40 pm local time,  Wuhan Central Hospital later said that Li Wenliang was still alive at that time but was in emergency treatment. At around 3 am, Wuhan Central Hospital announced that Li Wenliang had died at 2:58 am. Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid also announced Li Wenliang’s death at 10:40 pm,  but deleted that post later.

Li Wenliang’s death awakened so much fury and frustration among Chinese people. Chinese social media is awash with one quote “He who holds the firewood for the masses is the one who freezes to death in wind and snow” to memorialize Li’s bravery in sharing information. Angered by how the government altered Li’s actual death time and how the media censorship delayed correct information about coronavirus, a lot of people argued for the freedom of speech on social media. They created the hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech on Weibo reaching over two million views, but it was soon deleted by censors. Restricted by media censorship, people turned to pop culture to mourn Li’s death and express their fury. The song “Do you hear the people sing” (from the French musical Les Misérables) was widely quoted on most media platforms. To prevent further instabilities, the government issued the following instruction to the media:

“Regarding the death of Doctor Li Wenliang of Wuhan Central Hospital, rigidly adhere to standard sources. It is strictly forbidden for reports to use contributions from self-media, and sites may not use pop-up alerts, comment, or sensationalize. Safely control the temperature of interactive sections, do not set up special topic sections, gradually withdraw the topic from Hot Search lists, and strictly manage harmful information.”

It is actually not the first time the Chinese government has tried to censor the disasters in order to create a seemly harmonious society on the internet. Two previous tragedies in the China —  2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province and a train accident in 2011 — have already experienced similar filtering processes. In the Wenchuan earthquake, Beijing’s Central Propaganda Department ordered the reporters and journalists to only print pro-regime news, thus suppressing unfavorable news like the actual death toll of children and their parents’ angry protests. 

Chinese government has long been using “stability” and “national interest” as excuses to silence people, but this time with the outbreak of coronavirus, as well as the death of Dr. Li, more and more Chinese people who used to be indifferent to previous censorship have since realized that none of them can stay out of it. Weibo’s account of Shandong Province’s law enforcement body posted that “Heroes don’t fall from the sky. They’re just ordinary people who stepped forward.” Li Wenliang is not a hero, rather an ordinary person who enjoyed his life with justice in mind, but this time Chinese people are singing angrily for truth and justice. 

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