Chinese academics’ plea not to let Li Wenliang’s death be in vain
by Wang Zhicheng

An open letter demands that 6 February, the day of the doctor's death, be ‘Freedom of Speech Day’. It also calls on the government to publicly apologise for trying to silence Li, and demands respect for the Chinese Constitution which (in theory) upholds free speech. The People's Daily is silent on police threats against Li Wenliang. The hashtag "Dr. Li Wenliang has passed away” received 670 million visitors, whilst the hashtag "Li Wenliang has passed away" received 230 million views. The death toll in China from the coronavirus now stands at 723 deaths (more than during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak).

Beijing (AsiaNews) – “We cannot let Li Wenliang die in vain” embodies the appeal that some Chinese academics have made in an open letter posted online and shared by millions, following the death of the doctor who first issued a warning and was reprimanded by the police for it.

The letter, which refers to no one in particular, also calls for respect for the Constitution. In theory, the latter guarantees freedom of speech.

The appeal goes on to demand the removal of all restrictions on freedom, calls for 6 February (the date of Li's death) to be celebrated as ‘Freedom of Speech Day’, and urges the government to publicly apologise for not listening, indeed for stifling Dr Li’s voice, whom it describes as a martyr of truth.

One of the signatories of the letter is Prof Tang Yiming, the head of the School of Chinese Classics at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

“If the words of Dr Li had not been treated as rumours, if every citizen was allowed to practise their right to voice the truth, we would not be in such a mess, we would not have a national catastrophe with an international impact,” said Dr Tang.

“The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is not a natural, but a man-made disaster. We should learn from Li Wenliang’s death,” Tang added.

Echoing such words, Zhang Qianfan, a law professor from Peking University in Beijing, noted that Li’s “death shouldn’t frighten us, but encourage us to speak out.” Indeed, “If more people remain silent out of fear, death will come faster. Everyone should say no to the regime cracking down on freedom of speech.”

Many people have been moved by Li Wenliang’s death. The 34-year-old “ordinary hero” was married with a five-year-old son and his wife is expecting their second child in June.

By 6 am on Friday, the hashtags “Dr Li Wenliang has passed away” had 670 million views, “Li Wenliang has passed away” had 230 million views, and “I want freedom of speech” had 2.86 million views. They were quickly removed by the authorities.

The lack of freedom of speech in China is exemplified by two facts related to Dr Li’s death.

First, the government delayed announcing the death itself to prepare itself for possible unrest.

Secondly, the announcement of his death in the online edition of the People's Daily did not mention the fact that police and hospital officials had threatened Li after he shared his concerns in late December over an outbreak not dissimilar from SARS.

Meanwhile, as of 10 am 8 February, the death toll in China from the coronavirus reached 723 (more than during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak) with 34,621 confirmed cases, 27,657 suspected cases, and 2,052 discharged patients.

The coronavirus has spread to a total of 24 countries with 274 confirmed cases and one dead (in the Philippines).