On February 6, two Wuhan doctors who had separately warned of a looming viral outbreak – Zhang Jixian and Li Wenliang – made the news for very different reasons. Dr Zhang, the 54-year-old head of the respiratory department at a Hubei provincial hospital, had received an award for championing the fight against the novel coronavirus pneumonia, Xinhua reported that afternoon. “With extremely acute professional awareness, Zhang was the first person to make the diagnosis and insist on reporting the epidemic. She was the first to sound the alarm for the prevention work of the virus,” according to the Hubei government announcement cited in the report. Zhang was commended for treating seven patients with a new kind of flu last December, making her the first to diagnose the novel coronavirus, which in the next several weeks would kill hundreds and sicken tens of thousands globally. Alerted to the disease’s contagious nature, Zhang immediately reported it to the hospital and suggested a multi-department consultation. The news of her award, however, received far less attention on Chinese social media than the plight of Dr Li. That night, reports circulated that Li, a 34 year-old ophthalmologist, had lost the battle with the virus he had warned his colleagues about. Early the next morning, his death was confirmed , prompting tributes and expressions of anger throughout the nation. On December 30, apparently based on information leaked from Zhang’s report, Li wrote a post on a WeChat private chat group he shared with his medical school classmates. The post, titled “Seven cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market”, warned about a likely outbreak at his hospital, and he asked chat group members to keep the information to themselves and “remind your family members and loved ones to be on the alert”. The post was leaked online and circulated widely the next day. Then in early January, Li was reprimanded by the police for rumour-mongering and gravely disturbing the social order, and was widely believed to be among a group of eight medical professionals accused on state TV of the same offences. The coronavirus threatens the Communist Party’s grip on power Li later shared on social media his encounter with the local police, and an image of his written statement prepared by the police containing questions such as: “Can you stop your illegal activities?” and “Do you understand that you will be prosecuted if you refuse to repent and continue such behaviour?” “I can” and “I understand” were Li’s handwritten answers, alongside his red thumbprints. Both Zhang and Li were rule-abiding doctors. Neither voiced their concerns to the media or on public social networks before the information was made public. They trusted the higher-ups within the system. Zhang followed procedure and alerted the authorities. Li did not mean to be a whistle-blower ; he was initially upset that his private post had been leaked and worried about the repercussions, he said in an interview after contracting the novel coronavirus from a patient. With his death, Li became a symbol of public frustration over the poor early government responses, which many blame for the escalation of the crisis. Wuhan government officials did not do enough to contain the virus’ spread. They downplayed the risks of an outbreak even after Zhang’s report and Li’s leaked warning. Li is hailed as a hero across Chinese social media, as disappointment with political apparatchiks grows. The silencing of truth tellers has sparked renewed public interest in the freedom of speech . As Li put it in an interview, “a healthy society should not only have one voice”. Since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, controls over both traditional news coverage and cyberspace discussions have increasingly tightened . In the name of social stability, social media users are often punished for spreading arbitrarily defined “rumours”. A few hours after Dr Li’s death, the hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech garnered nearly two million views on Weibo, while #WuhanGovernmentOwesDrLiAnApology had tens of thousands of views. Both were quickly censored, the result of a draconian information control regime at work. Weibo users have called on the Wuhan authorities to clear the names of the eight reprimanded doctors and to investigate those who had abused their powers in harassing the “rumour-mongers”. Others urged the government to distinguish partially inaccurate information from malicious disinformation, and to stop labelling anything unofficial as a potentially punishable “rumour”. Li was by no means a Hollywood-style superhero, nor a Chinese state-sanctioned role model. He was ordinary Li was by no means a Hollywood-style superhero, nor a Chinese state-sanctioned role model. He was ordinary and unknown to the public until the last month of his life. His most courageous act was agreeing to be interviewed and identified. He was unusually young to have died of the coronavirus, and he is survived by his parents, wife, a five-year old son and a second child due in June. All of these made him a visible victim of the draconian control and crisis mishandling of the Chinese system, and earned him a great amount of sympathy. Mourning his death, people searched through his Weibo posts and realised he was just like most Chinese millennials – he enjoyed watching popular dramas and eating fried chicken. A Weibo user described him thus: “He was such a lively young man who cared about his loved ones and was understandably afraid of getting into trouble with the authorities, just like you and me. He might not have been an out-of-touch superhero, but he came, and he should not have left like this.” Audrey Jiajia Li is a nonfiction writer and broadcast journalist Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.