li wenliang: the heroic intellectual

One of the eight Wuhan whistleblowers, Li Wenliang (李文亮) died on February 7, Chinese time. Most of the posts to my friends’ circle (朋友圈) are memorials to him. In addition to pictures of Li Wenliang wearing a face mask, these posts include images of his police file for creating rumors about a SARS-like virus and screenshots of relevant posts, including international posts in English and German. In addition, essays about his life and the meaning of his death are starting to appear. The more ‘viral’ of these essays emphasize the fact that he was an ordinary person doing his job and that he had the courage to speak truth to power. These posts imply a relationship between Li Wenliang’s status and his courage; only the ordinary, it would seem, are able to tell the truth, affirming both the need for public intellectuals to watchdog the public realm and the public’s right to have intellectual watchdogs looking out for their interests.

The significance of this online mourning while the public is being quarantined makes for interesting speculation on what might come of Li Wenliang’s passing. After all, memorials for departed leaders catalyzed both the 1976 Tiananmen Incident and 1989 Tiananmen protests. On April 5, 1976, an estimated 200,000 people gathered in Tiananmen ostensibly to mourn Zhou Enlai, who had passed in January that year. The protests were interpreted as a protest against the Gang of Four and were critical to Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978. Similarly, on April 17, 1989, two days after Hu Yaobang had died of a heartache, students from Beijing University marched to Tiananmen Square to memorialize the departed leader. They were soon joined by students from Qinghua and other leading universities. The commemorative talks quickly became demands for political liberalization and protests against corruption, which in turn lead to the occupation of Tiananmen Square.

Like the WeChat essays that are currently circulating to commemorate Li Wenliang, poems from Tiananmen 1976 and the seven demands made in Tiananmen 1989 emphasize the need for intellectual watchdogs. In the narrative arc of the heroic intellectual that links current memorials to previous occupations of China’s most important public square, Li Wenliang could speak truth to power because he had the knowledge and skills to discern what the truth was and why it mattered. This rhetorical point becomes clear in the appearance of Lu Xun gifs that stress, “Studying medicine won’t save Chinese people.” Indeed, Lu Xun turned away from medicine to promote education, research, and public debate in order to make Chinese society more just.


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