The next Tiananmen Square? Chinese citizens are demanding increased free speech after the death of a coronavirus whistleblower doctor. China is censoring their calls.

  • The death of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was censored for trying to alert citizens about the dangers of the Wuhan coronavirus, has outraged Chinese citizens.
  • Chinese citizens expressed their anger and grief at his passing and the conflicting reports from state media outlets on social media.
  • Three viral hashtags – “The Wuhan government owes Li Wenliang an apology,” “I want freedom of speech,” and “We want freedom of speech” – were seen by millions before they were censored.
  • In the wake of his Li’s death, Chinese authorities have been trying to control public opinion online by censoring social media posts critical of the Chinese government.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following the death of a doctor Li Wenliang, a whistleblower who was censored for raising alarms about the Wuhan coronavirus in its early stages, Chinese citizens took to social media to express their grief – and demand for an apology and more free speech from the Chinese government.

The announcement of Li’s death also came amid conflicting statements in which state media reported that he had died, then that he was still alive on life support, and then again that he had died. The inconsistent reporting related to his death ignited outrage among citizens, who expressed frustration about the credibility of information from state media outlets.

In the wake of his Li’s death, Chinese citizens have accused authorities of trying to control public opinion online by censoring social media posts critical of the Chinese government and how they’ve handled the coronavirus.

“We are not allowed to mourn for Dr. Li Wenliang. We are not allowed to ask for liberty of speech. Our words has been deleted. And our mouths has been silenced,” a Chinese user tweeted.

The Chinese government has censored protests in the wake of Li’s death

As rumors spread of Li’s death throughout Thursday evening and Friday morning, three hashtags went viral online seeking justice for the whistleblower doctor: “The Wuhan government owes Li Wenliang an apology,” “I want freedom of speech,” and “We want freedom of speech.” The hashtags were seen by millions of users on a Chinese social media platform called Weibo before they disappeared without a trace, the South China Morning Post reported.

According to Nectar Gan, a reporter for CNN International, the hashtag “I want freedom of speech” had 1.8 million views around 5 a.m. before the entire phrase was censored from Chinese social media platforms. BBC also reported that “hundreds of thousands” of comments related to Li’s death have been completely wiped, complying with government demands to censor politically sensitive content.

Chinese authorities have replaced messages of dissent about Li’s passing with posts from Weibo accounts with a blue “V,” which are verified accounts for official government figures, agencies, media outlets and more. The posts trending about Li’s death now report that he died from a “work injury.”

A Weibo hashtag about Li Wenliang's death report that he died from a

caption
A Weibo hashtag about Li Wenliang’s death report that he died from a “work injury” and features posts from verified Chinese accounts
source
Weibo

According to Manya Koetse, the editor in chief of a Chinese social media watchdog blog called “What’s on Weibo, “a post acknowledging the Chinese governments’ dishonesty with the public began trending under a “Li Wenliang” hashtag also became popular among Weibo users.

Other citizens accused the Chinese government of trying to manipulate public opinion about Li’s death and the coronavirus through censorship.

On WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging platform, the hashtag “Can You Manage, Do You Understand?” referencing the letter Li was forced to sign by Chinese authorities for “making false statements” also began to surface on the platform. The phrase has become a rallying cry for those wanting more free speech, according to Koetse.

In the country where political dissent is often stifled and punished, the clamorous calls from citizens demanding accountability and change from the Chinese government amounts to an online revolt. One Chinese citizen compared the online dissent to the demonstrations made by Chinese students in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Gan reported.

“The last time so many people had been awakened was 1989. I want freedom of speech,” a user wrote in a now-deleted post under the censored “I want freedom of speech” hashtag.

Despite attempts by authorities to quiet the political dissent, other Chinese citizens are encouraging each other to continue speaking up online.

The Chinese government has been accused of covering up the virus

The Chinese government has been criticized for their reticence about the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak. Chinese officials have been cracking down on citizens speaking out about the pandemic, arresting citizens accused of spreading rumors online and detaining journalists covering the virus.

Li was one of few to raise alarms about the virus before the Chinese government had officially announced the outbreak. On December 30, Dr. Li Wenliang warned some of his medical-school colleagues about the virus before the Chinese government had officially announced the outbreak on WeChat. Soon, screenshots of his message about the potential risks of the illness went viral. He was later reprimanded and silenced by the police in Wuhan, made to sign a letter for “disturbing public order.”

Lil is now being hailed a hero in China for raising the alarm about the coronavirus and continuing to share information about the virus as he worked to treat patients at Wuhan Central Hospital. He contracted the coronavirus while treating patients and died from the virus at about 4 a.m. local time on Friday, state media outlets reported. He leaves behind his son, his pregnant wife, and his mother, who claimed she didn’t even get to say goodbye.

Chinese citizens are honoring Li’s death by blowing whistles and shining flashlights out windows across Wuhan, Hubei, the center of the coronavirus outbreak. However, even attempts to coordinate the commemoration to Li have been censored by authorities, according to Gan.

Have you been personally impacted by the coronavirus epidemic? Is your city or community on the front lines of this disease? Have you or someone you know been tested or diagnosed? We want to hear your story. Please email pcachero@businessinsider.com.