Students in NYC Remember the “Whistleblower” Doctor Who Died of Coronavirus

A memorial for the physician who first issued a warning about the new virus symbolizes more than grief

Students made signs and lit candles to remember Dr. Li Wenliang, who died of the coronavirus on Friday/Photo by Yoonji Han for NY City Lens

Chinese students gathered in Washington Square Park Saturday night to hold a memorial for Li Wenliang, the doctor who first sounded the alarm on the coronavirus. Li, 34, died of the virus in Wuhan on Friday morning, catalyzing public outrage against the Chinese government.

“People are angry about the coronavirus, and they’re angry about the government’s censorship, but they don’t have an outlet for this anger,” said A.J. Sun, 20, a New York University student from Shanghai who organized the memorial.

The Chinese authorities are under scrutiny for what many perceive as suppression of information regarding the outbreak of the potentially deadly virus. On December 30, Li sent a message to a WeChat group of doctors, warning them that seven patients had contracted a respiratory condition similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which killed nearly 800 people in 2003.

Li was later summoned by the police in Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak was first reported, and signed a warning letter promising to stop his “illegal activity.”

One of the signs at the memorial on Saturday night were marked with the Chinese words: “I cannot. I do not understand.” Sun explained that these phrases, now viral on Chinese social media, are a turn on the words that the doctor wrote in acquiescence to the demands of the police’s warning letter, which Li posted online. A copy of the letter, translated into English, was taped onto another sign at the memorial.

Li has become a heroic figure in the media, both in China and abroad. “He is an icon, a symbol of the emotions of anger and sadness we feel against the virus and against authoritarianism,” said Fordham student Caesar Hsu, 25.

Yoko Chen, 19, a Chinese student at the School of Visual Arts, thinks that the social consciousness of the younger generation in China is shifting as a result. “Normally, young people don’t care because they’re born into an environment where you can’t say anything or do anything. But when they realized that they were being lied to, that changed. They realized that if they didn’t talk about it, the government wouldn’t change,” she said.

Other signs at the memorial read, “We will not forget. We will not stay silent” and “We shall meet in a place where there is no darkness.” Sun handed out small red candles to newcomers. Whenever a candle sputtered and went out in the brisk wind, a student would quickly step forward to relight it. Sun also offered disposable face masks, which every Chinese student at the memorial wore.

Beyond remembering Li, the memorial also commemorated the patients and doctors who are risking their lives to combat the disease. The coronavirus has now killed 811 people in China, according to the most recent official data.

People from other countries also turned up to show their support. A Korean student from NYU, who has friends in China, dropped by, and a tourist visiting from Mexico sang “Ave Maria” for the small crowd at the memorial.

Before the memorial, a man had yelled at Sun and the other students on their way to the park, blaming them for making the virus and endangering the world. Despite the misconceptions and resulting fear surrounding the epidemic, Sun is determined to make a change. He believes that, as Chinese students in New York, he and others have the ability and opportunity to enact change that those living in China do not.

“The government wants to control the voice of the people and I want to do something about it,” Sun said. “We want the world to hear our voice.”

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