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The Great Wailing Wall of China

When China announced the end of zero-covid last week, people flocked to the Weibo page of Li Wenliang to tell him the news. “Dr. Li, finally it’s over. Already three years,” someone wrote.

On February 1, 2020, the whistle-blower ophthalmologist in Wuhan posted his last public message on the Chinese Twitter counterpart Weibo: The test results come out positive today. Everything is settled. It is confirmed. (Dog face emoji)“.

Five days later, he passed away.  

Li’s death ignited a tsunami of grief and rage unprecedented in Chinese cyberspace, for the death of a young conscientious doctor, for the humiliating admonishment he received for telling others about the epidemic and for the cover-up by the Chinese government.

People wrote numerous comments under Li’s Weibo swan-song post to vent their anger, pay tribute and give their best wishes for his afterlife.  

Then some started to talk to him like talking with an old friend, a deceased acquaintance or a revered saint. They sometimes write just a simple hello; they write Happy Birthday on his birthday (October 12th); they post pictures of Li’s favorite food, fried chicken. One person updated Li with the World Cup match results. Another person came every evening to tell Li a joke.  

Mostly, however, they tell him about their everyday lives, particularly hardships and miseries caused by the pandemic and the draconian restrictive measures by the government.

Some called it the Great Wailing Wall of China. A website outside of China has been summarizing postings from the Wailing Wall regularly.

“How are you on the other side, Dr. Li? My uncle passed yesterday, two months after my grandpa. I really hope you could meet them over there. You could drink together,” wrote one. 

“It’s raining outside. I like rainy days because I can cry without being noticed by others,” wrote another, without telling why they were sad. 

A very big part of the comments is about the endless Covid tests and all sorts of restrictions. As time went by, the impact of the restrictions came in variety in different parts of the country. Someone didn’t have enough food for months; someone was caught in the lockdown while on a trip to Xinjiang and was stuck there for two months; someone experienced lockdowns more than ten times; someone lost his job and was not able to pay back the mortgage; someone living in Canada couldn’t get a visa for China to see their dying mother… All of this was written on Li’s page.  

Silenced for making the new virus public

“When will this end? Dr. Li, is life only about lockdowns and Covid tests?”

“Dr. Li, we have been having Covid tests every day. My son is four years old. Today I saw him and his little friends playing doctor and patient for a Covid test. Covid test, that’s his childhood so far. I am so sad.” 

Some comments are harsher. “Is the Chinese world different from the rest of the world?”

“It’s almost three years, things stay the same, nothing changed.” said one, obviously referring to the government. 

“Dr. Li, now you can breathe freely in paradise. And no punishment for telling the truth. If you consider reincarnation, try a different country.” 

Li Wenliang already drew public empathy before his death because his experience was a perfect example of how the Chinese government handled crises concerning public interests: Cover up and punish a good-faith, truth-telling citizen.  

What Li Wenliang did in the final days of his life made his case even more poignant: he posted a photo of the so-called admonition from the police for “spreading rumors”. In the document, Li had to promise, with his signature and red fingerprints, that he would stop his “law-breaking behavior” and said he understood he would be punished if he continued.  

Around the same time he posted the document on Weibo, Li gave a newspaper an interview saying he felt wronged and spelled out this resounding statement: “There should be more than one voice in a healthy society.” 

In a country where people live in constant fear, this statement by a mild-looking doctor was extremely courageous.

The government’s reaction to the public opinion surrounding and after Li’s death is also worth a close look.  

Why is the account still open for comments?

Of course, Li’s Weibo page has been closely monitored by censors. Four months after his death, the comment function on his page was closed and all comments disappeared, igniting an uproar online.  

The comment function was subsequently resuscitated and the old comments came back. But the order of the comments changed. By default, the comment that received the most likes should appear on top. But after some changes, comments appear in order of the time of posting, with the latest at the top. This applies only to Li Wenliang’s page. With this, the harshest, most moving and most sensational messages were literally hidden.  

By then, the system displayed already more than 1 million messages under Li’s final post. People continued to write there in the next more than two years, until now. But the count stopped at “1 million+”. Normally, the number of comments to a posting is shown as it is, with no upper limit.  

So everything seemed to be under control.

But let us go back to the night Li Wenliang left this world.

According to an investigation by the New York Times, Li died around 9 p.m. on February 6, 2020. Soon enough, the news found its way to Chinese social media. Volcanic fury erupted, it seemed every one of the 1.4 billion was crying, screaming, and cursing, and calling for revenge on social media.  

For a few hours, the situation went out of control. I believed the censors were simply overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sheer size of the uproar. They might have tried to delete posts, but then given it up in face of the gigantic amount of expressions sweeping every corner of Chinese cyberspace. 

Finally, the leadership came up with an announcement, saying that Li was still on life support. Immediately, comments accused the government of lying to calm the public. However, some were indeed tricked into hoping Li could still survive. He was pronounced dead in the early hours of the next day, 6 hours later than his actual passing, when most people already went to sleep.

Nobody took to the streets back then. The government’s tactic seemed to have worked. But the magnitude of online public reaction was already awe-inspiring. The authorities’ clumsiness showed, although for just some hours, that their sophisticated censorship and surveillance system is not omnipotent.  

And that would be something we would see again last month, when people did stand out bravely holding a blank white paper.  

China is often seen as a pool of dead water. People there seem to be able to tolerate anything. Now we know, this perception is not always correct.  

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