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Doctor's death a 'moment of awakening' for China

William Yang Taipei
February 14, 2020

Free speech advocates in China are demanding more transparency after the death of a coronavirus whistleblower. DW spoke with human rights lawyer Wang Yu about how the case has changed public discourse on the outbreak.

A memorial for Li Wenliang in Hong Kong
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/Kin Cheung

DW: A group of intellectuals has published a public statement calling on the Chinese government to establish a "freedom of expression" day. How has Li Wenliang's death inspired more calls for freedom of expression in China?

Wang Yu: After Li Wenliang suddenly passed away, people realized that the Chinese government is afraid of those who speak the truth.

Around the same time that Li died, two citizen journalists who had been covering the coronavirus epidemic from Wuhan disappeared.

Authorities have tried to hide the extent of the coronavirus epidemic, and have also tried to conceal the circumstances of Li's death from the general public.

The Chinese government censors content on social media by deleting posts or suspending accounts. This censorship regime is the actual cause of the unstoppable epidemic. Following Li's death, there was a lot of information on Chinese social media being posted by members of civil society. However, the government quickly took control.

Freedom of expression is the foundation of openness and transparency. That is why human rights scholar Zhang Lifan from Peking University is leading a call for the Chinese government to establish a freedom of expression day.

I would say Li's death is a moment of awakening for many people in China.

Read moreDid China's authoritarianism actually help the coronavirus spread?

As a human rights lawyer in China, how do you asses Beijing's handling of the epidemic and why are authorities censoring information online?

Beijing tried from the start to hide the full extent of the coronavirus epidemic from the Chinese public. That exposed front-line medical staff to the highly transmittable virus without proper protection, further enhancing the risk of these medical staff contracting the illness.

After the epidemic grew out of control, the government enforced a lockdown across China. However, I doubt that this will stop the virus from spreading. They prevented Western experts from entering China to help fight the epidemic due to political reasons.

Authorities censor information about the virus on social media because they are afraid of the Chinese people learning the truth about their incompetence.

The Chinese government holds on to power by forcing society to adopt a single narrative, which is whatever Beijing says it is. They are safeguarding their interests and not the interests of public health.

Did Li's death challenge the narrative of authorities?

Li's death destroyed the Chinese government's claim that a human right like freedom of speech is not connected to what is being called the "right to survival." 

Chinese netizens realized following Li's death that free access to information is a right that is important for survival and safety during this epidemic.

Li Wenliang's experience is a microcosm of Chinese people's lives. In this country, anyone could go through what Li Wenliang experienced. His passing resonates with many people and I believe that's very important.

Therefore, we are demanding that China's leaders guarantee human rights before they talk about ensuring everyone's survival.

Read moreCoronavirus: How hospitals in China's Wuhan kept the sick away

What is the current state of human rights advocacy in China?

Initiatives started by intellectuals are critical right now as human rights and the rule of law have deteriorated in China over the past few years.

Since the "709" crackdown on human rights activists in 2015, the Chinese government has been detaining a large number of journalists and intellectuals. But China needs intellectuals to help lead the country. Policies that suppress and punish intellectuals have in the past led China to the brink of disaster.

Wang Yu is a Chinese human rights lawyer based in Beijing.

This interview was conducted by William Yang from DW's Taipei office. 

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