In a lavish ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, recognised a select group of citizens for their contributions to the country’s fight against Covid-19 and praised his party’s resilience when faced with such “an extraordinary and historic test”.
In front of hundreds of party officials, cadres and health workers, Xi carefully draped a heavy gold medal over the head of the senior epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan. He awarded medals to a traditional Chinese medicine expert, the head of a Wuhan hospital at the forefront of the outbreak, and a military biomedical expert. More than 40 medical workers, local officials and police who died during the outbreak were also commended.
But missing from the list of national heroes was one individual that comes to mind for many Chinese citizens: the doctor Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at a hospital in Wuhan who was “disciplined” by local authorities for trying to warn colleagues of the virus. His death aged 34 after contracting the virus in January turned into a rallying call for free speech and demands for government accountability.
Angry at his omission, citizens have flooded Li’s last post on Weibo with tributes. “The one who deserves the most recognition is you,” one of the most recent comments on Wednesday read. “Dr Li is the real people’s hero,” another posted a few seconds earlier said. “They win medals on stage. You win medals in our hearts.”
One user wrote: “The state owes you a medal. This medal will not be given to you because if so this country would be admitting it did something wrong and this country can do no wrong.”
“When others represent 1.4 billion people, it is the obedient who are honoured. When we 1.4 billion people represent ourselves, we honour the disobedient,” another posted.
The comments undercut the triumphant ceremony where Xi celebrated the competence of the Communist party, which has been criticised for allowing the outbreak to turn into a pandemic that has caused almost 900,000 deaths globally. According to official numbers, more than 4,634 people have died in China from the virus, a figure that critics have questioned.
While the virus continues to ravage other countries, China has not seen any new locally transmitted cases in more than three weeks. This week, two Chinese companies unveiled Covid-19 vaccines at a trade fair in Beijing.
“We quickly achieved initial success in the people’s war against the coronavirus,” Xi said in a 70-minute speech at the ceremony on Tuesday. “China is the first major economy to recover since the outbreak of the pandemic and we lead the world in epidemic prevention, control and economic recovery,” he said.
Since Li’s death in February, his Weibo page has become a kind of repository for emotions and reflections. Some express grief while others update the doctor on the latest in their lives.
“Brother, it has been a long time since there have been any new local cases. I feel relieved but it is almost winter and the high rate of pneumonia is still scary,” one person said in a recent post.
It is also a forum for not-so-veiled criticism. Li, who spoke out about his punishment and criticised the government’s handling of the virus before his death, is famous for saying: “There should be more than one voice in a healthy society.”
Weibo users echoed that sentiment on his page. “We worried there is only one voice in this society and we can only keep silent. If we make a sound we will suffer your same fate. We thank you and miss you,” one commenter said.