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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Feb. 10)

All News 07:05 February 10, 2020

Death of doctor
Whistleblower sends warning against autocratic rule

The death of the doctor who sounded an early alarm on the new coronavirus speaks volumes about the Chinese authorities' poor initial reaction to the viral outbreak and the communist leadership's preoccupation with its grip on power. The Chinese government should be held accountable for his death because it suppressed his warning.

Dr. Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, died of a pneumonia-like illness Friday. It is sad to see him become a victim of the virus, against which he issued an early warning Dec. 30. It is all the more frustrating because his death could have been prevented if the health authorities in the Chinese central city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus outbreak, had not ignored his warning.

That's why social media users in China hailed Li as a hero, triggering an outpouring of grief and anger over his death. Even state broadcaster CCTV called him a "whistleblower" on the new strain of the coronavirus. An editor of the Global Times, a government-backed newspaper, said that Wuhan owes him an apology.

Li deserves praise for his courage as a whistleblower and his responsibility as a doctor. He wrote in a social media post that he saw a test sample suggesting the occurrence of a coronavirus similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which claimed around 800 lives in China and other countries between 2002 and 2003. At that time, the Chinese government invited criticism for refusing to disclose relevant information about SARS in a transparent manner, and failing to contain the epidemic in the early stages.

Similar things have happened this time for the novel coronavirus which is believed to have originated in a seafood wet market selling exotic animal flesh in Wuhan. Li recommended medical workers to use protective equipment when treating patients. Regrettably, however, the local authorities reprimanded him for "rumor-mongering." Police forced him to sign a statement admitting to spreading "illegal and false" information which allegedly "disrupted the social order."

The Chinese authorities are apparently more interested in maintaining social stability and consolidating one-party rule than ensuring public health. They were hell bent on hiding the outbreak and downplaying the risk of its rapid spread in early January in order not to create social unrest. What they should fear the most is not nonexistent false information, but the actual deadly virus outbreak.

Beijing has promised to conduct a thorough investigation into the death of Li. It should go all-out to confirm if the local authorities abused their power to suppress his voice against the emergence of the virus. Most of all, the communist leadership under President Xi Jinping must realize that it cannot achieve the "Chinese Dream" only through surveillance and control of the people. It should make efforts to guarantee basic human rights, including freedom of speech, and establish a transparent and democratic system.

Chinese people and its leaders should keep in mind what Li said in an interview with media while undergoing treatment. "I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don't approve of using public power for excessive interference," he said. His remarks could be seen as a warning against the autocratic rule of the Communist Party of China.

A photo of Li lying on a hospital bed wearing an oxygen respirator and holding his ID card is going viral online. His death should not be in vain and hopefully will lead to changes for a healthy society in China.

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