In China, Anger Simmers Over Coronavirus Doctor’s Death


Dr. Li Wenliang, who died of the disease, was one of the first to warn of it before he was questioned by police

BEIJING—China pledged “thorough investigations” into the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor who raised early alarms about a new respiratory virus, as public anger built across the country over the government’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic that has spread quickly across China and around the world.

Dr. Li, who died early Friday of the coronavirus, had been taken in by police shortly after he warned former classmates on Dec. 30 about a new pathogen, with police accusing him of spreading rumors and forcing him to write a statement admitting to “illegal behavior.”

China’s National Supervisory Commission, the country’s top anticorruption body, said Friday that it would send a special team to Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, to investigate the circumstances around Dr. Li’s death.

The Wuhan municipal government, meanwhile, published a notice on its website Friday to pay tribute to Dr. Li, expressing profound sorrow and conveying condolences to his family. The National Health Commission and the health commissions of Wuhan and Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, issued similar statements.

Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, praised Dr. Li during a daily briefing with reporters, expressing condolences to his family and calling him one of many medical workers who had given their lives in the line of duty.

Chinese online commenters have been calling on the Wuhan government to apologize to Dr. Li for having reprimanded him for sending warnings about the virus.

Dr. Li himself contracted the virus, and as news of his declining health spread online Thursday evening, a hashtag calling on the Wuhan government to apologize to him spread quickly on China’s Twitter-like Weibo service. Public anger grew further after the hashtag appeared to be censored.

On Chinese social media Friday, commenters posted tributes to Dr. Li, circulating a quote from an interview he had given just days before his death: “I believe a healthy society should not just have one voice.”

At Wuhan Central Hospital, where Dr. Li had died, bouquets of flowers were left outside a building entrance Friday, accompanied by messages wishing him peace and thanking him for his bravery.

The mix of anger and anguish over Dr. Li came as the death toll from the virus rose to more than 600 and the number of infected cases topped 30,000 in mainland China by the end of Thursday, according to the National Health Commission. The 73 people who died in China on Thursday matched Wednesday’s single-day high.

In Beijing, officials on Friday acknowledged disruptions to the economy from the outbreak, including a likely increase in soured loans. Officials said they would slash taxes, while calling on banks to offer leniency on mortgage and credit-card payments.

Separately, Chinese President Xi Jinping told President Trump in a phone call Friday morning Beijing time that he had confidence the country would win what he called a “people’s war” against the deadly coronavirus, according to readouts from the White House and Chinese state media reports.

During the conversation, the first known communication between the two leaders since the World Health Organization last week declared the virus outbreak a global public-health emergency, Mr. Trump expressed confidence in China’s strength and resilience in confronting the outbreak, the White House said.

“They’re working really hard, and I think they’re doing a very professional job,” Mr. Trump said in comments to reporters at the White House on Friday.

Earlier, Mr. Trump praised Mr. Xi on Twitter as “strong, sharp and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus.”

“He feels they are doing very well, even building hospitals in a matter of only days. Nothing is easy, but he will be successful,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “We are working closely with China to help!”