Li, a 34-year-old opthalmologist in the city of Wuhan, became one of the most visible public figures during the crisis after he was reprimanded by police for “spreading rumours” about the illness.
News of his death on Friday morning became the most-read topic on China’s microblogging wesbite Weibo and prompted hundreds of thousands of people to pay tribute below the doctor’s final post on social media.
“A hero who released information about Wuhan’s epidemic in the early stage, Dr Li Wenliang is immortal,” wrote Zeng Guang, chief scientist at the China Center for Disease Control.
“Light a candle and pay tribute to the hero,” said one user of microblogging site Weibo. “You were the beam of light in the night.”
Others placed blame for the deaths on Chinese officials and called for the government to apologise for its treatment of Li, although the most critical comments were quickly deleted by censors. Some internet users protested by replacing their profiles with a white exclamation mark on a black background.
The World Health Organisation said on Twitter that it was “deeply saddened” by news of his death while Amnesty International said the doctor’s death highlighted China’s human rights failings.
“The case of Li Wenliang is a tragic reminder of how the Chinese authorities’ preoccupation with maintaining ‘stability’ drives it to suppress vital information about matters of public interest,” said Nicholas Bequelin, the organisations’s director for the region.
“Nobody should face harassment or sanctions for speaking out about public dangers, just because it may cause embarrassment to the government.”
China’s anti-corruption agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said on Friday it would send investigators to Wuhan to probe “issues raised by the people in connection with Dr Li Wenliang.”
Li raised concerns about the new virus in a message to a group of doctors on WeChat, a Chinese messaging platform, in December. He also posted a picture of a test result and gave details of the virus’ links to a seafood market in Wuhan.
On 3 January the city police bureau sent him a letter saying he had ”severely disrupted social order” and warned the doctor he would face criminal charges unless he promised to stop posting messages.
Last Saturday Li revealed he had tested positive for the coronavirus. It is likely he contracted the illness while treating patients at Wuhan Central Hospital.
Following his death at 2.58am local time on Friday, the Wuhan government issued a statement expressing “deep condolences and regret”.
“We pay tribute to how he stood at the front line to fight the epidemic and offer our sincere condolences to his family,” the government added.
China has confirmed at least 636 deaths and more than 31,000 cases of the coronavirus since the start of the outbreak.
Additional reporting by agencies
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