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Wuhan Gets Its First Virus Martyr

The coronavirus has killed an early whistleblower. The question now is whether Beijing celebrates his sacrifice—or buries his story.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Chinese doctor Li Wenliang
Chinese doctor Li Wenliang shared this photo on his Weibo account in January. Li Wenliang/Weibo

The coronavirus that first erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan only made global news in late January. But Li Wenliang tried to raise the alarm on it in December. He was one of eight doctors who posted accounts of the virus online, fearing that it showed human-to-human transmission. The response from the local government was to send police to threaten him and force him to sign a statement saying he wouldn’t make further trouble. The written statement said, “We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice—is that understood?”

Li is now dead. His death was reported this morning by multiple outlets, including the highly respected Caixin and the party-owned Global Times. As news of his death spread like wildfire on social media, however, previous reports were deleted, as were threads about him—one of which had recorded 5 million comments—and the claim was put out that he had been “resuscitated” though was still “in critical condition.” It may be that Li was truly lingering on the edge of death. Or it may be that the government was terrified of the possibility of making a martyr. There are claims that Li’s body was literally strapped back into life support when the extent of public anger online became clear. In the end, his employer stated he had died at 2:58 am Friday.

Li was confirmed to have the virus on Feb. 1. At just 34 years old, Li is one of the youngest known victims of the coronavirus. He is not  the first medical worker to die, which was the 62-year-old Liang Wudong, and he will not be the last. There are estimates that over 500 health care workers are already infected. It may be that official media is struggling to find a line to tell his story. While the whistleblowers have won applause from a central government eager to blame the local authorities for the failure, spreading news of his death is clearly much riskier, especially as Beijing cracks down on journalists, doctors, and ordinary citizens speaking out.

But Li’s death is not just because of the coronavirus. As the Confucian philosopher Mencius asked, “Is there any difference between killing a man with a stick and with a sword? … Is there any difference between doing it with a sword and with governmental measures?” The cover-up of the potential epidemic that Li and the others attempted to raise the alert on helped kill him—just as surely as it has helped condemn, so far, hundreds of others to death.

China puts special emphasis on its tradition of martyrdom. As with every old country, there’s a premodern tradition of people supposedly sacrificing themselves for the sake of the people or the kingdom, from the Warring States poet Qu Yuan to Yue Fei, executed during Song Dynasty intrigues. Those praised as historic martyrs are usually men, although sometimes women are included, most frequently as “pious widows” who killed themselves rather than remarry. And as in every new country—for the People’s Republic dates only to 1949—there’s a modern tradition of sacrifice for the nation and, in China’s case, the Communist Party.

Martyrs were fodder for the revolution. The term “martyr” is routinely used in Chinese to refer to any wartime death, and martyrs’ cemeteries are common across the country. Individual tales of sacrifice are a standard part of the school curriculum, from soldiers jumping on grenades to firefighters dying in forest blazes. Much of this heroism was real, but much of it was also imaginary. The Maoist cult doubled down on it; even in peacetime, martyrs had to be created. When Chinese historians and skeptics began to question it online in recent years, however, the Communist Party reacted fiercely, passing laws making it illegal to call these mythical accounts into doubt.

This tradition of national sacrifice has always been a cultivated one. It’s regularly referred to in propaganda today. In describing the foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s comments on Wuhan, the Chinese state outlet Xinhua wrote that “sacrificing one’s small family for the big family and putting the country before oneself has always been a spiritual hallmark of the Chinese nation and a strong bond uniting all Chinese people.”

Historically, that’s a highly questionable claim. The idea that the nation and the party came before family was one drilled into the population by the Communists—to the extent that two days after the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, for example, the cadre Che Zhengming was being celebrated on the front page of People’s Daily for rescuing senior party staff while leaving his children to die. As elsewhere, the notion of the “nation” didn’t reach most people until the 19th century or later, and Chinese were no more given to national sacrifice than people in any other country. It was the literati, those most invested in the imperial system, who were most dedicated to the idea of sacrificing themselves for it, not the common people.

Underneath that tradition of national martyrdom, however, there has always been a hidden current of dissident sacrifice. Sometimes these figures end up being (usually briefly) celebrated nationally, such as Lin Zhao, a Cultural Revolution dissident who wrote her last letters in her own blood. Sometimes, like the man who stood holding his shopping bags before a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, even their names are unknown, and they’re celebrated more outside than inside the country. The tradition of heroes killed unjustly goes back a long way, too. The third Ming Emperor murdered the Confucian scholars who opposed his usurpation of the throne; his grandson put statues up celebrating their sacrifice.

Li’s image is being pinned online alongside the statement he was forced to sign, and censors are taking it down as fast as it goes up. The government has a tough decision. Does it embrace the image of a man official decisions  helped kill, hoping to pin the blame entirely on the failures of the Wuhan authorities? Or does it keep removing  his name and image, silencing the stories of another potential martyr?

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer