Li Wenliang and the censorship of the Coronavirus

Jacob Yi, Contributing Writer

The irony hits hard for the Chinese government in their pursuit of maintaining authority by censoring the truth. On Dec. 30, 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang warned his medical colleagues of a possible virus emerging in the Wuhan Province in a private WeChat, a Chinese social messaging app, after seeing reports of patients with a new strain of coronavirus.

Screenshots of the conversations sprang up on Chinese forum pages, receiving wide-attention, including Wenliang’s manager, who denounced him for leaking the information of a possible virus. 

Subsequently, three days later, Wenliang reported that the Chinese police from the Wuhan Public Security Bureau came to him, giving him a warning statement for “making false comments on the Internet.” After being forced to sign a letter that stated if he were to spread rumors again, he would violate the law and be prosecuted. In essence, Li Wenliang was silenced for being worried about the health and welfare of his country. 

As of this February, there have been almost 80,000 total cases of the coronavirus with deaths approaching 3,000; it has spread to 36 separate countries with the most cases being in China, South Korea, and Italy.

While it is sensible for a government to reduce potential widespread panic, blackmailing a doctor with worries of a potential pandemic is not exactly the most ethical way to do so. Perhaps with the cooperation of a doctor’s knowledge of viral strains and symptoms, and the government’s power to shut down borders could they prevent or at least slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Yelling “fire” in an auditorium is illegal, for it presents immediate harm, but a virus takes time to spread. Informing civilians of viral infection is important, as it warns civilians to stay away from potentially infected areas of the province. Wenliang decided to stay in the province to help infected patients. 

The death of Li Wenliang from the same coronavirus he warned others about caused uproars of anger and frustration at the Chinese government on censorship and the mishandling of vital information. Adding insult to injury, the reporting of Wenliang’s actual time of death was mishandled, with multiple posts from the Wuhan City Central Hospital stating he died at different times. This had led to some to concern whether Wenliang actually succumbed to the virus.

While the government couldn’t have possibly known whether the rumors of a coronavirus were true or not, the reports that showed the high possibility of patients having a strain of the virus highlighted the possibility of its existence. Wenliang only served to translate this information to others to see. Yet, this isn’t the first time the government has tried to manipulate doctors. 

In a SARS outbreak in 2003 that killed over 800, the Chinese government admitted suppressing the actual number of patients with the virus by telling doctors to under report the actual number of cases. According to a CNN interview, a Chinese official stated how “the coverage position[ed] a negative coverage of China.” 

While China may have acted more quickly and more efficiently against the spread of the coronavirus than previous pandemics, its continued use in censoring intellectuals is one to be forgotten. Due to the Internet, doctors like Li Wenliang are able to share information on the existence of the coronavirus. Censorship and repression of information is necessary in certain cases, but when the stake of a billions of lives are at stake, trying to maintain superficial authority is foolish.