Li Wenliang was a Chinese ophthalmologist. A physician at Wuhan Central Hospital, Li warned his colleagues in December 2019 about a possible outbreak of an illness that resembled severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), later acknowledged as COVID-19. He became a whistleblower when his warnings were later shared publicly. On 3 January 2020, Wuhan police summoned and admonished him for “making false comments on the Internet”. Li returned to work, later contracted the virus from an infected patient and died from the disease on 7 February 2020, at age 33. A subsequent Chinese official inquiry exonerated him and the Communist Party formally offered a “solemn apology” to his family and revoked its admonishment of him and two other police officers.
Li Wenliang was born on 12 October 1986 in a Manchu Family in Beizhen, Liaoning. He attended Beizhen High School and graduated with excellent academic performance. In 2004, he scored 609 in the National College Entrance Examination (gaokao), and was admitted to Wuhan University School of Medicine as a clinical medicine student in a seven-year combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program. He joined the Communist Party of China in his sophomore year. His tutor said he was a diligent and honest student. His college classmates said he was a basketball fan.
After graduation in 2011, Li worked at the Xiamen Eye Center of Xiamen University for three years. A former intern at Xiamen said that Li was so patient with his patients that he had never shown any dissatisfaction to them even when they failed to hear or understand what he said. His colleagues described him as an ordinary person, who was once scolded by his director, who would feel distressed when sorting out piles of medical records, and who was once cheated when buying Apple products. In 2014, Li became an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital in Wuhan, China.
Li Wenliang’s messages in the “Wuhan University Clinical Medicine 2004” Wechat group
on 30 December 2019
- Li: There are 7 confirmed cases of SARS at Huanan Seafood Market.
- Li: (Picture of diagnosis report)
- Li: (Video of CT scan results)
- Li: They are being isolated in the emergency department of our hospital’s Houhu Hospital District.
- Someone: Be careful, or else our chat group might be dismissed.
- Li: The latest news is, it has been confirmed that they are coronavirus infections, but the exact virus is being subtyped.
- Li: Don’t circulate the information outside of this group, tell your family and loved ones to take caution.
- Li: In 1937, coronaviruses were first isolated from chicken…
On 30 December 2019, Li saw a patient’s report which showed a positive result with a high confidence level for SARS coronavirus tests. The report had originated from Ai Fen, director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central hospital, who became alarmed after receiving laboratory results of a patient whom she had examined who exhibited symptoms akin to influenza resistant to conventional treatment methods. The report contained the word: “Sars coronavirus”. Ai circled the word “SARS”, and sent it to a doctor at another hospital in Wuhan. From there it spread throughout medical circles in Wuhan, where it reached Li. At 17:43, he wrote in a private WeChat group of his medical school classmates: “7 confirmed cases of SARS were reported [to hospital] from Huanan Seafood Market.” He also posted the patient’s examination report and CT scan image. At 18:42, he added “the latest news is, it has been confirmed that they are coronavirus infections, but the exact virus strain is being subtyped”. Li asked the WeChat group members to inform their families and friends to take protective measures. He was upset when the discussion gained a wider audience than he expected.
After screenshots of his WeChat messages were shared on Chinese forums and gained huge attention, the supervision department summoned him to talk, where he was blamed for leaking the information. On 3 January 2020, police from the Wuhan Public Security Bureau investigated the case and interrogated Li, giving him a warning notice and censuring him for “making false comments on the Internet”. He was made to sign a letter of admonition promising not to do it again. The police warned him that if he failed to learn from the admonition and continued to violate the law he would be prosecuted.
After the admonition, Li returned to work in the hospital and contracted the virus on 8 January. On 31 January, he published his experience in the police station with the letter of admonition on social media. His post went viral and users questioned why the doctors who gave earlier warnings were silenced by the authorities.
The letter of admonition issued by the Wuhan Police Bureau (translation) ordering Li to stop “spreading rumors” about “SARS”, signed by Li and two officers. Li uploaded it to his Sina Weibo account.
Li was in the spotlight in the Chinese media because he was thought to be one of the eight “rumormongers” warned by Wuhan police. However, according to some media, Wuhan police summoned eight “rumormongers” on 1 January, while Li and Xie Linka, another doctor from Wuhan Union Hospital, were warned on 3 January, meaning that the latter two might not be part of the group. Li later responded that he did not know whether he was one of the “rumormongers”, but that he had been cautioned for telling the truth. The police punishment of Li for “rumor mongering” was aired on CCTV, signaling central government endorsement for the reprimand, according to two authors reporting for the South China Morning Post.
On 4 February, the Chinese Supreme People’s Court said that the eight Wuhan citizens should not have been punished as what they said was not entirely false. It wrote on social media: “It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumors’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitization measures, and avoid the wild animal market.”
On 7 January, Li contracted the coronavirus when he saw an infected patient at his hospital. The patient suffered from acute angle-closure glaucoma and developed a fever the next day. Li then began to suspect that the patient might have a coronavirus infection. Li developed a fever and cough on 10 January, which soon became severe. Doctor Yu Chengbo, a Zhejiang medical expert sent to Wuhan, told media that although most young patients do not tend to develop severe conditions, the glaucoma patient whom Li saw on 8 January was a storekeeper at Huanan Seafood Market with a high viral load, which could have exacerbated Li’s infection.
On 12 January, Li was admitted to intensive care at Houhu Hospital District, Wuhan Central Hospital, where he was quarantined, treated, and tested for the virus several times until he tested positive for the infection on 30 January. He was diagnosed with the virus infection on 1 February. While hospitalized, Li posted a message online promising to return to the front lines after his recovery.
According to a colleague, Li’s condition became critical on 5 February. On 6 February, while Li was on the phone with a friend, he told the friend that he was having trouble breathing and that his oxygen saturation had dropped to 85%. At around 19:00, he was sent to the emergency room. According to China Newsweek, his heartbeat stopped at 21:30. In social media posts, the Chinese state media reported that Li had died, but the posts were soon deleted. Later, Wuhan Central Hospital released a statement contradicting reports of his death: “In the process of fighting the coronavirus, the eye doctor from our hospital Li Wenliang was unfortunately infected. He is now in critical condition and we are doing our best to rescue him.” Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) was reportedly used to keep him alive. Yet, the effort was unsuccessful, and the hospital announced that Li had died at 2:58 a.m. on 7 February 2020.
When Li began showing symptoms of the coronavirus illness, he booked a hotel room to avoid the possibility of infecting his family, before being hospitalized on 12 January. Despite this precaution, his parents became infected with SARS-CoV-2, but later recovered. Li and his wife, Fu Xuejie, have one son. His wife was pregnant with their second child at the time of his death.
The World Health Organization posted on Twitter saying that it was “deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Li Wenliang” and “we all need to celebrate work that he did on #2019nCoV”.
The death of Li provoked considerable grief and anger on the social media which became extended to a demand for freedom of speech. The hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech gained over 2 million views and over 5,500 posts within 5 hours before it was removed by the censors, as were other related hashtags and posts.
Although initially there was no official apology from the city of Wuhan for reprimanding Li, within hours of his death, the Wuhan municipal government and the Health Commission of Hubei made exceptional statements of tribute to Li and condolences to his family. Beyond Wuhan, the National Health Commission did likewise. In an even more exceptional move, China’s highest anti-corruption body, the National Supervisory Commission, has initiated a “comprehensive investigation” into the issues involving Li. Qin Qianhong, a law professor at Wuhan University expressed his concern that, unless properly managed, public anger over Li’s death could explode in a similar way as the death of Hu Yaobang.
Jie Qiao, Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and President of Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing called Li a “whistle-blower dedicating his young life in the front line”.