A Social Media Profile of the Late Dr. Li Wenliang: From a Liberal-leaning Student, to a Party Adherent, to a Whistleblower Who Believes a Society Should Have More Than One Voice

Ye Du, February 26, 2020

Photo: New York Times

In 2009, the late Dr. Li Wenliang registered a Twitter account (@xiaolwl) in 2009 when he was working on a master’s degree at Wuhan University, making him one of the earliest Twitter users in China. He browsed the site by circumventing the Great Firewall, but made few comments of his own, preferring to lurk. He was someone who wanted to know what was actually going on, but took few risks, so in this sense he was rather ordinary, not a fighter for democracy. At the same time, he does not live as a pig, like most people in “Zhao State” (赵国).[1]1

Of the 169 accounts Li followed on Twitter, the only one in mainland China was that of Luo Yonghao (罗永浩). Suffice to say, Li began using Twitter due to Luo. Bullog.cn (牛博网), which Luo founded, is known as a major base of liberal intellectuals, such as Mo Zhixu (莫之许), Ai Weiwei (艾未未), Wang Xiaoshan (王小山), Song Shinan (宋石男), Liang Wendao (梁文道), Fang Zhouzi (方舟子), Han Han (韩寒), Bei Feng (北风), and Mao Yuxuan (茅于轼). They are read by a large number of Chinese netizens, and Li Wenliang was no doubt one of the young students influenced by their liberal thought.

From the end of 2008 to the beginning of 2009, Bullog.cn repeatedly ran what the Chinese authorities considered “sensitive” content such as Charter 08, articles about civil rights activism, and political commentaries. Being the “main front” for Charter 08, Bullog.cn was banned in January 2009, primarily for this reason.

The closing of Bullog.cn was a great disappointment for many liberals in China, and the site was widely commemorated on Douban, a community popular among intellectuals and young artists. I believe that Li Wenliang was aware of this online atmosphere and was influenced by these events, hence, when he made his first Weibo post in July 2011, it was to support the television anchor Wang Qinglei (王青雷) for his outspokenness on the train accident in Wenzhou. On the Chinese political spectrum, Li was a typical liberal in his early days.

In addition to the accounts of two U.S. presidents and Western media such as CNN and BBC, Li Wenliang also followed Joshua Wong (黄之锋), showing that he was willing to accept and contemplate liberal dissident thought.

Li also followed some accounts that tweeted adult or pornographic content. In the context of Chinese discourse, scaling the firewall to watch erotic videos expresses a rejection of the Party’s values, and it counts as a kind of passive resistance.[2] The Communist Party presents itself as a role model for morality, so as a means of expressing their contempt for the Party-state, many pan-liberals in mainland China often state openly on social media that they are consumers of erotica.

Li Wenliang became a doctor in July 2011 following his graduation from university. In China, hospitals are institutions within the political system, and as such are subject to strict political restrictions. Medical staff cannot make statements that go against the system. From this time onward, Li no longer participated in liberal discussions. This demonstrated the deterrent power that institutional interests combined with political pressure have in dispersing intellectuals. Li Wenliang was doubtless one of the many individuals silenced by totalitarian control.

So when, in 2019, during the 70th anniversary of the Party-state’s rule, Li was a “flag defender” (护旗手), and [during the Hong Kong protests] expressed support for the Hong Kong police. On the one hand, we may see that this was not a true representation of his feelings, as he was only acting as required of his role in the political system. On the other hand, it shows how he was completely absorbed by the system, and would not make any display of dissent, so as to avoid endangering his future.

But Li Wenliang was not a “little pink” (小粉红) cyber-nationalist. After all, influenced by liberalism for many years, the totalitarian system was not able to stamp out his conscience. Disobeying the strict bureaucratic prohibition, he informed his classmates and co-workers [of the impending danger]. This was a manifestation of his human nature.

His true courage was that after the epidemic broke out, he said in an interview that a normal society should not only have one voice, and made public the letter of reprimandation (训诫书, issued to him by the police). As a person in the system, his choice in the face of the coming epidemic was one that required courage. After his death, the police’s reprimandation letter became a source of shame for the whole nation; it stirred the people to rage, and became a rallying beacon of the people’s cry for free speech.

Li Wenliang is not a hero. He is just an ordinary person who kept his conscience despite institutional pressure. Yet even when faced with the leviathan of totalitarianism, he took the first step out of the silenced majority. This is something worthy of everyone’s praise.

[1] Derived from Lu Xun’s famous work, The True Story of Ah Q, “Zhao State” is a mocking reference to China under CCP rule. China Change has a commentary on this topic in 2016: ‘The Zhaos’ — The Demarcation of a Divide.

[2] On occasions of significant public events, the popular Chinese adult website caoliu (草榴社区) often has lively discussions critical of, or mocking, the Chinese government’s policies and actions.

Ye Du (野渡) is a Guangzhou-based dissident writer.

野渡: 从李文亮的Twitter、微博看其从泛自由派到体制化. Translated by China Change.

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