Viral Alarm is the title of China Heritage Annual 2020. That series focussed on the COVID-19/ Coronavirus/ Wuhan Influenza epi- / pandemic and its significance both in China as well as in China in the world.
Today mark’s three years since the death of Dr Li Wenliang 李文亮 from COVID-19. We commemorate China’s famous epidemic whistleblower with an essay and a translation originally published by The China Project. We are grateful to Jeremy Goldkorn for permission to reprint this material.
— Geremie R. Barmé,
Editor, China Heritage
7 February 2023
Li Wenliang: The man who was wrong to have been right
Dr. Lǐ Wénliàng 李文亮 is the doctor who tried to warn his colleagues about the spread of COVID-19 in Wuhan in early 2020, was silenced by the authorities, and forced to write a self-criticism. This is a translation of that document by renowned Sinologist Geremie Barmé to mark Li’s death three years ago this week.
— Jeremy Goldkorn, 1 February 2023
February 1, 2023, marks three years since Dr. Lǐ Wénliàng 李文亮 posted his last message: “I got a positive nucleic-acid test today. The dust has settled, and the diagnosis has finally been confirmed.” A week later, on February 7, 2020, COVID-19 killed him.
On December 30, 2019, the same day that China’s Contagious Disease Commission circulated a memo to hospitals in Wuhan to be on the lookout for a new form of pneumonia, Li saw a patient’s report indicating the presence of a form of the SARS coronavirus. At 17:43 that day, Li told a private WeChat group of his medical school classmates, “Seven confirmed cases of SARS were reported from Huanan Seafood Market.” He also posted the patient’s examination report and CT scan image to the group. At 18:42, he added, “It has been confirmed that they are coronavirus infections, but the exact virus strain is being subtyped,” and suggested to his classmates that they alert their families.
When news of Li’s remarks spread, his superiors put him under investigation and, on January 3, 2020, he was interrogated by the Wuhan police. As a result, Li was issued with a formal warning and was censured for “publishing untrue statements.” He was also made to sign a letter of repentance. As the epidemic spread, and despite an official attack on him, unofficially, Dr. Li’s “whistle-blowing” was widely praised. Although his warning had been ignored and suppressed, Li’s confession was soon vitiated by events. On January 31, Li released details of his interrogation on social media.
When he was under investigation, Li, who was a Party member, had been required to write a self-criticism. Self-criticisms, be they in writing or in verbal form, are the lifeblood of the Communist Party. They are integral to the network of guidance, control, and censure that encompasses the education system, government operations, work life, and local policing. Formulaic and trite though they may be, self-criticisms are a key sociopolitical lubricant in the machinery of the party-state. There is a stilted artfulness to their composition, one that many people learn from an early age. A self-criticism routinely catalogs errors, interrogates personal failings, and offers an admission of guilt that invariably concludes with a solemn undertaking not to sin in the future.
The self-criticism has been a feature of Communist Party life since the Yan’an Rectification Movement starting in 1942, when all Party members at the wartime guerrilla base were required to align their thinking with a new form of Sinified Marxism that would be known as “Mao Zedong Thought.” At the time, an old Buddhist term was employed to describe what was required: Everyone had to demonstrate their unquestioning submission to the Party line “verbally, in writing, as well as in the heart” (口服、手服、心服). Since 1949, only denunciations of other people have been able to match the volume and frequency of self-criticisms and confessions as the most expansive category of China’s secretive and voluminous written culture.
As the coronavirus continues to ravage China and the world on the third anniversary of Li’s death, we offer a translation of his confession and recall the official Chinese claim that, from January 7, 2020, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 was “personally supervising and personally directing” (亲自指挥、亲自部署) China’s COVID response. Li, like everyone else in China, was subordinated to the dialectical will (and whims) of the leader — something known as zhǎngguān yìzhì 长官意志. And, as the Sinologist Simon Leys observed:
Dialectics is the jolly art that enables the Supreme Leader never to make mistakes — for even if he did the wrong thing, he did it at the right time, which makes it right for him to have been wrong, whereas the Enemy, even if he did the right thing, did it at the wrong time, which makes it wrong for him to have been right.
Of the tens of millions of self-criticisms written over the years, Dr. Li Wenliang’s confession stands out as one of the most heartbreakingly consequential and blood-stained. More important, however, is his epitaph, a quotation attributed to Li that was shared widely on the Chinese internet following his death:
“For a society to be healthy, there needs to be more than one voice.”
— Geremie R. Barmé
My Reflections and Self-Criticism
— my role in the present incident regarding the leaking of inaccurate information related to the “Wuhan Pneumonia of Uncertain Origin”
Despite the fact that the information I had to hand had not been verified, I nonetheless took it upon myself to tell members of the group chat of my former university classmates that “seven cases of SARS have been confirmed at the Huanan Seafood Market.” One of those classmates circulated a screenshot of my post outside of our group and that resulted in widespread public panic. This had a negative impact on the investigations being undertaken by the Hygiene Commission as well as ongoing diagnostic work. As a result of a probing self-analysis I now realize that:
I lack the kind of political awareness required of a Party member;
I lack an adequate understanding of contemporary internet culture and the speed with which inaccurate information can be disseminated;
I lack knowledge of medical matters that are beyond my immediate area of specialization; and,
I lack an ability to adequately assess information.
Having now measured my actions against the stipulations of the Party Constitution, relevant regulations and the guidance contained in key speeches [made by Xi Jinping and other leaders], I have been able to ascertain just where I have fallen short. In light of this, I have undertaken a detailed self-examined and, following deep reflection, I offer the following self-criticism:
1. In regard to my inadequate political acuity I have come to recognize that my study of the Party Constitution and relevant regulations was neither sufficiently systematic nor rigorous. Furthermore, I have failed to apply the relevant aspects of Party theory to guide my actions.
Article Three in Chapter One of the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party stipulates that Party members must: ‘Consciously observe Party discipline, with utmost emphasis placed on the Party’s political discipline and rules, set a fine example in abiding by the laws and regulations of the state, strictly protect Party and state secrets, execute Party decisions, comply with Party decisions on job allocation, and readily fulfill the Party’s tasks.’
I failed to critically scrutinize or confirm the information that I had at hand in a timely fashion. I too readily gave credence to unverified data, which I then disseminated in a chat group of my classmates. I also failed to appreciate in a timely fashion:
The potentially serious consequences that might result from that information being leaked;
The ongoing sensitivity of SARS;
The profound impact that the SARS epidemic of 2003 had on the livelihood and health of the broad masses; and,
The devastating losses suffered by the national economy.
The state has protocols in place regarding the announcement and dissemination of information related to public health emergencies. These clearly state that, ‘In the case of an outbreak of an infectious disease, its spread or any other public health emergency within their jurisdiction, the relevant public health authorities and government of each province, autonomous region and directly administered municipality are to make a timely and accurate announcement.’
That means, therefore, that as an individual I simply have no right to provide any information, let alone information that is inaccurate. It behooves me to maintain absolute unity both in thought and in deed with the Central Committee of the Party.
2. An insufficient appreciation of the manner in which information can be disseminated online. I now appreciate that with the proliferation of digital technology, in particular smartphones, mobile internet connections are constantly evolving. Rumors concerning medical emergencies invariably result in mass panic, the undermining of the government’s credibility, and social disorder. The massive volume of images, short videos and texts on social media such as WeChat and the fragmentation of news sources can easily spark widespread popular curiosity and misunderstandings. As a result, news of a medical emergency can spread rapidly and rumors can readily gain a foothold. Within the space of a few hours, the texts and images that I had posted to my chat group had spread to other provinces and were even being reposted by the international media. This had a negative impact both on the authorities and on the relevant health and propaganda organizations. I was not mentally prepared for any of this and I feel profoundly regretful and remorseful about it.
3. I have not studied or sufficiently appreciated the relevant laws and regulations pertaining to the use of WeChat. Starting on 8 October 2017, the ‘Administrative Provisions on the Information Services Provided through Online Chat Groups’ and ‘Administrative Provisions on the Information Services Provided through Official Accounts of Internet Users’, previously promulgated by the National Cyberspace Administration of China, went into effect. These new regulations clearly stipulated how information can and should be dealt with and disseminated by online chat groups.
Creating and spreading rumors can lead to social panic, have a negative impact on people’s daily lives and their work behaviors. The Internet is not beyond the law.
Article 25 of the ‘Public Security Administration Punishments Law of the People’s Republic of China’ stipulates that those who ‘spread rumors, make erroneous reports of incidents, viruses, or police matters or by other means purposefully undermine social order’ can be detained or fined. I am now deeply aware of the fact that WeChat is a platform with numerous users, it has a broad impact and that a negative piece of information can have an immediate and profound impact. In the future I am determined not to disseminate any information that contravenes the regulations, firmly obey all relevant laws and be sure ‘not cross the line’.
In my future work and studies I undertake to constantly reflect critically on my thoughts, words and deeds. I undertake to engage with an ongoing self-critical review of myself. I will humbly learn from the example set by the leaders of my work unit and my comrades. I will be steadfast in my support for the Party’s ideals; I will give no credence to rumors; I will not spread rumors. I will constantly measure my actions against the relevant stipulations of the Party Constitution, its regulations and the guiding spirit of the leaders’ speeches. I resolve to apply myself to the study of political theory, enhance my awareness of ‘political sensitivity’, and police my actions in every way so that I can be a Party member worthy of the name.