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Millions Demand Answers In China After Doctor's Death From Coronavirus


The death of a Chinese doctor and whistleblower this week has sent China into mourning. Dr. Li Wenliang tried to warn other medical staff about the coronavirus in December. He was reprimanded by police for spreading rumors and then contracted the disease himself a few weeks ago. Now he's seen as a hero. Tens of millions of people in China have posted online tributes to Dr. Li, including this song.


MICHAEL MAGUIRE: (Singing) Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men? It is the music...

SIMON: It's the call to arms from the musical "Les Miserables" about a region uprising against a corrupt monarchy. The implication is - well, you can figure that one out. With us is NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing, who's been following this story. Emily, thanks for being with us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: That song doesn't have a subtle message.

FENG: Yeah (laughter).

SIMON: Why is Dr. Li's death resonating with so many people and so fiercely?

FENG: People need a hero. Imagine hundreds of millions of people. They've been isolated in their homes for the last two weeks. They're terrified that this invisible virus is going to kill them or their loved ones. And they're reading news every day that people are dying for want of care. Also, my reporting and reporting from many others has shown that leaders in Wuhan, which is the city where the disease began, knew from scientists that the virus was highly contagious. It resembled SARS. And they didn't do much until about three weeks later.

So for a lot of people in China, Dr. Li represents this tragic everyman figure who was suppressed by Chinese leaders. He also seemed like a really nice guy. Here's an interview a Chinese online outlet did with Li's mother the day he died.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: She's saying, "Li's father and I had pneumonia, but we just recovered. Tragically, our son didn't make it. He was only 34. He had such potential and talent. He could never tell a lie."

The circumstances of Li's death have also really angered people. Initially, state media reported that his heart had given out. And then the grief started pouring out online. State media then deleted their own articles, said, actually, no, no, no. Wait; we've resuscitated him. He's on life support. Then they had to issue the report that he actually died when it was clear he wasn't going to make it.

And Li leaves behind a 5-year-old son. His wife is expecting to give birth to their second child in June.

SIMON: Emily, any response from the leaders of China? No apology?

FENG: They have not officially apologized. There are these state media obituaries that lionize Dr. Li as an upstanding and - this is key - loyal citizen. Authorities did say they were going to send the National Supervisory Commission, which is this infamous anti-corruption watchdog, to Wuhan to investigate why the doctor was reprimanded in the first place.

But this outcry is a huge questioning of legitimacy of China's ruling Communist Party. It's one of the biggest challenges that they're facing in the last year. And they've actually had a really rough year, what with the protests in Hong Kong going on, this trade war with the U.S. And so the Communist Party here is responding with a very familiar tool, and that is massive censorship.

When Dr. Li died, there were millions of posts going up demanding freedom of speech, demanding answers. Those were taken down within hours. And I've spoken to several people on the record whose social media accounts were suddenly sealed off this week because they had posted or shared articles critical of how the outbreak was being handled. They're among tens of thousands that have been suddenly cut off.

SIMON: And, Emily, what's the latest reported from Wuhan? Any sign the outbreak might soon be contained?

FENG: No. The number of cases is going up, though the rate is slowing down. There are a lot of concerns, though, that this is because there is such limited capacity to treat people. And there are questions as to how many health care workers like Dr. Li were infected.

SIMON: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing, thanks so much.

FENG: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.