A Chinese doctor who was castigated for warning of the novel coronavirus during the early days of the epidemic has been exonerated, in a report prepared by Chinese government investigators. Unsurprisingly, the report does not go far enough in identifying those responsible for this atrocious and mind-bendingly irresponsible incident.
Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang from the Central Hospital of Wuhan has been posthumously exonerated by an investigation team set up by the Chinese government, according to Xinhua News, the country’s largest state-run news agency.
In early January 2020, Li was admonished by Chinese officials for “spreading false rumors,” as he tried to warn his colleagues about the outbreak over a chat group, reports the Guardian. Li eventually contracted the coronavirus-caused disease covid-19 at work and succumbed to the illness on February 7, 2020 at the age of 34. The new report, released this week, describes Li as “professional” and “brave,” admitting he wasn’t actually trying to disturb the public order, as he was initially accused of by Chinese officials, the Guardian reported.
Li’s death sparked a firestorm in China, as furious citizens rushed online to vent their frustrations. Censors hurriedly removed posts in an attempt to deflect this public display of anger. The new attempt to backtrack may not assuage the public, however, as the authors of the report failed to explore and identify the deeper systemic issues that gave rise to the episode. Instead, the report authors blame the lower-level officers who initially confronted Li.
As the Guardian reports, Chinese citizens have already responded to China’s tepid response:
“Is that it?” said one user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, where news of the report was the top read topic, with over 160 [million] views, on Thursday evening.
“It’s like they might as well have not said anything,” said another.
“How can you let these police at the very bottom bear the burden?” said one top comment on Weibo on Thursday night. “They were just carrying orders. Don’t hurt them.”
In early January 2020, Li was asked to visit the Wuhan Public Security Bureau. The officers there accused him of spreading “false rumors,” forcing him to sign a document admitting that he had “seriously disrupted social order” in violation of Chinese law, reports the Guardian. Li was reprimanded but not punished and was still able to practice medicine, according to Xinhua. As many as eight people were disciplined in this way, reports the Guardian.
The day after Li’s death, the Chinese government launched its probe, the details of which were released this week and detailed by Xinhua.
In December 2019, a colleague informed Li that several hospitals in Wuhan were treating patients with pneumonia, the cause of which could not be determined. Writing to a chat group of peers, Li said it was a new outbreak of SARS (another deadly coronavirus) and that it could be traced back to a fruit and seafood market in Wuhan. In subsequent messages to the group, Li described an unknown coronavirus infection, telling his colleagues to “alert your families and take precautions,” according to Xinhua’s accounting of the report. Eventually, Li’s warnings found their way to the public—and to Chinese authorities.
The new report conceded that Li’s posts were not inappropriate, adding that he acted bravely and professionally. That said, the authors of the report still found a way to take a dig at Li, saying he hadn’t actually verified his information prior to sharing.
“It should be noted that related departments and experts had yet to make a definitive diagnosis for the cases of pneumonia of unknown cause and had not accurately understood the epidemic at that time,” an unnamed state official told Xinhua. “Under such circumstances, Li forwarded the messages without verification. Part of the contents did not fully correspond with the reality.”
A key recommendation of the report is that the original police officers be located and reprimanded, which has apparently happened, according to the Guardian, which cited the social network Weibo as the source. The Chinese government says it will launch another investigation to discern why officials were so slow to respond to the looming health crisis.
As for Li being an “anti-establishment champion,” as he’s been branded by some Chinese citizens, the state official who spoke to Xinhua said that’s not true.
“Those hostile forces with ulterior motives, who tried to stir up trouble, delude people and instigate public emotions, are doomed to fail,” the official told Xinhua, which, again, is a state-run news agency. As if to convince Chinese citizens of this, the Xinhua article took care to note that Li was a member of the Communist Party of China.
We’ll be watching for the results of the subsequent investigations, though like this new report, they are likely to disappoint. Either way, the unfair reprimanding of Li should go down as one of the most infamous and avoidable episodes, not just in the history of China but in the history of the world itself.