BEIJING: A Chinese doctor who was among the first to warn publicly about the new coronavirus outbreak - and was reprimanded by authorities for "spreading rumours" - died of the infection early on Friday (Feb 7), his hospital announced.
Dr Li Wenliang was working as an ophthalmologist in the virus epicentre city of Wuhan when he observed patients with symptoms similar to the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-03.
The 34-year-old sent out a message to colleagues on Dec 30, but was later among eight whistleblowers summoned by police for "rumour-mongering".
He later contracted the disease while treating a patient and has been hailed as a hero by Chinese Internet users.
Wuhan Central Hospital in Hubei province, where Dr Li worked, confirmed his death in a brief posting on its verified account on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
"Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang of our hospital, who was unfortunately infected during the fight against the pneumonia epidemic from the novel coronavirus, died at 2.58am on Feb 7, 2020 despite all-out efforts to save him.
"We deeply regret and mourn this."
More than 600 people have died and 28,000 have been infected in China, where authorities are still struggling to contain the outbreak despite ordering millions of people indoors in a growing number of cities.
After seeing patients with SARS-like symptoms, Dr Li messaged a warning to colleagues to wear protective masks and clothing.
He was summoned along with eight others four days later by police for "rumour-mongering", according to a Weibo post he wrote from a hospital bed after contracting the disease in mid-January.
Dr Li said he was told to sign a letter accusing him of making "false comments" that had "severely disturbed the social order".
China's supreme court, however, last week said the whistleblowers were treated "inappropriately".
Dr Li's death sparked grief and outrage on Chinese social media, where netizens hailed him as a martyr.
"He is a hero who warned others with his life," one user, an orthopaedic surgeon, wrote on Weibo.
China's anti-graft watchdog announced on Friday it will launch an investigation into the government's handling of the coronavirus emergency.
The discipline inspection commission said in a statement that an investigative team will go to Wuhan to "conduct a comprehensive investigation into issues involving Dr Li Wenliang reported by the masses".
The public sadness appears to have taken the Chinese government's usually tightly-controlled propaganda apparatus on the back foot.
State broadcaster CCTV and the Global Times tabloid had reported his death on Weibo late Thursday but they deleted their reports soon after the news became the top search item on the platform with 12 million hits.
The hospital later issued a statement saying Li was undergoing emergency treatment before confirming his death early Friday.
Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said authorities likely ordered the delay to show there was an effort to save the doctor "because there was such an outpouring of emotion and they wanted to give a sense of hope".
"Clearly, there was a effort nationally to channel these very strong emotions from across the country," Yang told AFP.
But the government also did not want to "let it get out of hand" and instead move the grief in the direction that the leadership wants it to go, he said.
The party wants to show that only under its leadership can the country overcome the crisis, he said.
"That's revolutionary discourse that the party has used again, again and again," he said.
In recent weeks, censors had allowed Weibo users to criticise Hubei officials - a move that placed attention on them instead of the central government.
After Li's death, criticism went far beyond the anger directed at local officials, with users questioning the nature of the Communist state itself.
Some Weibo users used historical references, pointing to Wuhan as the birthplace of the 1911 revolution that ended thousands of years of imperial rule in China.
"The eight heroes of Wuhan - the Qing dynasty has been dead for 100 years, how can there still be such bloody tragedies?" wrote one user.
By Friday morning, multiple hashtags related to freedom of speech and Li's death had been scrubbed from Weibo's search results.
"If they delete it, post it again. I oppose the criminalisation of speech," wrote a Weibo user in a post that had been reshared thousands of times.
In one of his final Weibo posts, Li wrote the intensive care unit that he was having trouble moving and breathing.
"Seeing all the support and encouragement from my online friends, my mood has become more relaxed," Li said.
"Please don't worry everyone, I will actively cooperate with the treatment, and fight to be discharged soon!"