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China exonerates Covid-19 whistleblower but ignores 'grave crime'

Investigation criticized for failing to pin responsibility on those who tried to conceal the epidemic

UCA News reporter, Hong Kong

UCA News reporter, Hong Kong

Updated: March 24, 2020 03:24 AM GMT
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China exonerates Covid-19 whistleblower but ignores 'grave crime'

Chinese students hold a memorial for Dr. Li Wenliang, who died after being reprimanded for warning about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, outside the UCLA campus in Westwood, California, USA, on Feb. 15. (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP)

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An inquiry that officially exonerated a Chinese doctor who was reprimanded for warning about the coronavirus outbreak has been criticized for not revealing who was trying to conceal the epidemic.

An official investigation exonerated 34-year-old Dr. Li Wenliang, who was accused of "spreading rumors" after he alerted authorities about the emergence of the new coronavirus in Wuhan in Hubei province in late December.

Police in Wuhan revoked the reprimand against Li, who died from Covid-19. They also apologized to his family for ill-treating him, said official state media on March 20.

Father Wu, who works in a diocese in northern China, said both the investigation and its outcome were flawed. "They are not investigating why Li was silenced. They were investigating the police admonishing Li," he said.

Father Wu said authorities continue to be "unwilling to disclose the whole Li incident" because the "disclosure will be tantamount to admitting that the epidemic was officially concealed from the beginning," he said.

Li's post on Dec. 30 on WeChat, a popular Chinese group chat, warned about some patients displaying signs of a new severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-like coronavirus.

But he was forced to sign a document admitting he had "seriously disrupted social order" and breached the law. He was detained on Jan. 3 for "spreading rumors."

A week later, the whistleblower ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital developed a fever and was diagnosed with Covid-19 in late January. The unassuming doctor died on Feb. 7.

His death came after Chinese authorities acknowledged the outbreak of a novel coronavirus.

Li's death sparked outrage in China. Social media platforms were flooded with critical posts, some blaming the government for his untimely death.

The public anger directed at the ruling Chinese Communist Party led a powerful anti-corruption agency to declare "a comprehensive investigation" into the "problems reported by the public" concerning the doctor.

The investigating agency last week submitted its report, stating that Li had not caused public disorder and that he was a medical professional who made sacrifices.

However, the report observed that Li had not verified the information before going online and it was "not consistent with the actual situation at the time."

The news of investigators exonerating Li was the most read and discussed topic on China's Twitter-like Weibo with over 160 million views on March 19 evening.

'A cruel act against humanity' 

The Li affair galvanized public opinion in China for the right to freedom of expression, with rights groups saying it remains a reminder of the suppression of free speech in the country.

Qiao Dayao, a Christian doctor in Hubei province, said she has been following the case in which Li and seven other doctors were reprimanded for their attempt to tell the world about the Covid-19 outbreak.

She said authorities suppressed them and it turned out to "be a cruel act against humanity" as the virus began to spread across the world, "killing thousands of innocent people," she said.

Chinese authorities not only persecuted doctors who warned about the outbreak but also delayed steps to control the epidemic, allowing the virus to spread around the world, Qiao said.

"It was a grave crime but nobody takes responsibility for that. Authorities move without any sense of remorse. It is a shameless system," the doctor told UCA News.

Lawyer Xu Baolu said authorities' handling of the Li incident had violated legal procedures.

"If the question was about police mishandling the case, then we must investigate what laws the police used to determine that Li was spreading rumors," he said.

"If a problem arises, the law is not enforced to punish the guilty, but the attempt is always to find a scapegoat for the purpose of building public opinion." 

He pointed out that the investigation had indirectly admitted that the police wrongly accused Li. It does not say who was behind the police.

"This incident has exposed the failure of authorities to comply with the law. If an investigation is initiated against the state, it will find someone at the lowest level to be punished," he said.

Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's regional director, said in a statement that the case of Li Wenliang is a tragic reminder of how the Chinese authorities "suppress vital information about matters of public interest."

According to the latest data, 16,572 people worldwide have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that Li warned about in December.

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