A song from the musical Les Misérables is making the rounds on Chinese social media after the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor credited as the coronavirus whistleblower.
The musical’s “Can You Hear The People Sing?” has become rallying cry for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. In the musical and its 2012 movie adaptation, the song is sung to incite a civilian uprising against the oppressive French monarchy. As protests picked up again in June 2019, Chinese music streaming sites took down the song, citing copyright reasons.
Now, it’s being quoted on social media sites like Weibo as Chinese people grieve the death of a “martyr” and “hero.” But many of the posts praising Li are disappearing, Quartz reports.
Li and seven other people shared information about the early cases of coronavirus in late December. An ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, he told his medical school alumna group on WeChat about seven pneumonia cases that were similar to SARS, which killed more than 700 people in 2003. On Jan. 3, the police summoned Li to sign a letter chastising him for “making untrue comments,” and made him promise to stop his “illegal behavior.”
“We hope you can calm down and reflect on your behavior,” the letter says. Li posted a photo of it, with his signature and fingerprint at the bottom, on Weibo. “We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice.”
A week later, Li contracted the virus from a patient at the hospital. He died on Thursday.
“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better,” Li told the New York Times in an interview shortly before he died. “There should be more openness and transparency.”
On Weibo and WeChat, angry social media users are quoting the iconic Les Misérables song. One Weibo user posted a clip of “Do You Hear The People Sing?” and captioned it, “Has my mouth been sealed? I can still roar silently!” according to a translation by Quartz.
In another sign of growing public anger, people also started to share the song “Do you hear the people sing?” from musical Les Misérables on WeChat. Interestingly enough, the song is also deemed as the unofficial anthem for HK protesters. https://t.co/NyrQzHrZeJ pic.twitter.com/Iv6AKIzZHf
— Jane Li (@Jane_Li911) February 6, 2020
obv my wechat feed isn’t a reflection of the country….but i’ve been to over 21 provinces in China so I think i have a pretty good sample size.
— Clarissa Wei (@dearclarissa) February 7, 2020
Social media users are also drawing comparisons to Chernobyl, the nuclear disaster that Russian officials tried to cover up in 1986. Trending posts include screenshots of HBO’s Chernobyl, which focused on how the government’s attempts at hiding the disaster came at fatal cost to its people.
One WeChat post, viewed more than 100,000 times, declared an unofficial state funeral for Li. It quotes Valery Legasov, one of chemists investigating the meltdown.
“What is the cost of lies,” the quote reads. “It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
And in Wuhan itself, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, citizens shouted from their apartment buildings in tribute to Li.
People in #Wuhan shouting together from their apartments last night. Some say they shouted to pay tribute to Li Wenliang, who first exposed #CoronaVirus Outbreak, and who died yesterday. What they shouted though, is “Wuhan, Add oil”, meaning keep fighting, pump up, or cheer up pic.twitter.com/3eYG9lKuIV
— 曾錚 Jennifer Zeng (@jenniferatntd) February 7, 2020
Before Li’s death was announced, the topic “I want freedom of speech” was trending on Weibo. It has since disappeared, but not before drawing 1.8 million views.
The hashtag # I want freedom of speech # on Weibo is now gone. It had drawn 1.8 million views as of 5 a.m.
Even the phrase itself has been censored.
Not allowed to speak.
Not allowed to die.
Now allowed to be angry.
Not allowed to desire.
Are we allowed to at least remember? pic.twitter.com/bSQtpBKSOU
— Nectar Gan (@Nectar_Gan) February 7, 2020
On Friday, China’s top anti-corruption branch said it would investigate Wuhan for “issues raised by the people in connection with Dr. Li Wenliang.”
Weibo, however, continues to be censored. In a notice on Wednesday, the government mandated that China’s top internet companies like Tencent, Baidu, and Bytedance “conduct special supervision” on any content related to the epidemic. NPR reports that in addition to the mandate, the Communist Party sent over 300 state media reporters to Wuhan and the greater Hubei area to counteract negative coverage from other reporters.
Shortly before his death, Li told independent Chinese outlet Caixin, “A healthy society should not have only one kind of voice.”