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Death of Chinese doctor who tried to warn of new coronavirus sparks public outrage

Chinese officials are now struggling to contain a political revolt while also grappling with outbreak of novel coronavirus. The death of a young doctor who was punished for trying to warn about this new illness has triggered a wave of public anger and demands for accountability from the Chinese government. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The outbreak of a new coronavirus has paralyzed parts of China, with mounting health and transportation concerns.

    But the past 24 hours have altered the political atmosphere there as well. The death of a doctor who tried to sound the alarm about the virus has triggered a wave of anger among the Chinese public, complete with memorials and online messages.

    That backlash is the focus of William Brangham's latest report.

  • William Brangham:

    Wuhan, China, is like a ghost town. This city of 10 million, now the epicenter of this novel coronavirus outbreak, is on an indefinite quarantine.

    As the death toll rises every day, Chinese officials are facing a different crisis. Public outrage is surging because of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang. He's the local physician who helped sound the alarm about this virus back in December. He died yesterday from the virus.

    But back when the 34-year-old first spoke out, police detained him and ordered him to sign a statement saying he'd made false claims. Li was one of eight medical professionals who warned about the virus at the very moment the Chinese government wanted to stay silent.

    Three weeks later, China announced the outbreak had become a full-scale national emergency.

    This young doctor's death and his treatment by police has triggered a rare public revolt against the Chinese government. To many, Li is now a martyr.

  • Man (through translator):

    He left us when we needed him to fight the novel virus and the pneumonia. At the same time, he was criticized and unfairly treated because of his report on the virus. So we feel very sad. The government should hear different opinions and allow different opinions to exist.

  • William Brangham:

    Those frustrations were echoed in semiautonomous Hong Kong.

  • Lee Cheuk-Yan:

    The whole information about this virus was being suppressed. And when it was suppressed, the Chinese people do not know what is happening, and, therefore, actually, it's the regime that is allowing this virus to spread.

  • William Brangham:

    The backlash against Chinese President Xi Jinping and his regime is intensifying, with demands for greater transparency.

    Taisu Zhang is a professor at Yale Law School. He studies contemporary Chinese law and politics.

  • Taisu Zhang:

    This is the most severe threat to the regime's political legitimacy in the past two decades. I think it's exposed the regime as inefficient, as disorganized, as mismanaging the incentives of the local bureaucrats and medical workers, and basically unable to handle this kind of medical crisis.

  • William Brangham:

    Meanwhile, Chinese state media consistently puts out optimistic headlines, insisting the outbreak is under control. Today, a spokeswoman for China's National Health Commission sought to paint a similar rosy picture.

  • Song Shuli:

    The number of reported newly increased confirmed cases has been significantly reduced for two continuous days, which tells us that the prevention and controlling measures have achieved more positive results.

  • William Brangham:

    But the outrage over Li's death forced China's leaders to say today that it's sending a team to — quote — "fully investigate relevant issues raised by the public."

    The national government has put most of the blame on local leaders.

  • Taisu Zhang:

    The central government has been basically making a very public attempt to highlight the problems with the local governments' initial management, sending investigation groups down to the provincial local level to try to weed out, sort through the episodes of local governmental mismanagement, abuse, and basically promising the public that there will be accountability at some point.

  • William Brangham:

    But local authorities have tried to shift the blame back onto the central government.

  • Taisu Zhang:

    They're basically saying, given the current — current extremely high level of central control over local behavior, given the added levels of monitoring and control that has been — that have been introduced into the Chinese system since 2012, they can't do anything of this magnitude.

    They can't make these calls without approval from the center, which means that, for them to actually act on the ground, they have to relay their decision up several levels to get approval.

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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