When the media asked me how the Chinese government was handling the crisis of COVID-19, I offered them a distinction which comes from the social sciences: the Wuhan authorities acted well as sentinels but failed to act as whistleblowers.

Indeed, the death of 34-year-old ophthalmologist Li Wenliang from COVID-19 on February 7, after warning on the emergence of a coronavirus similar to SARS as early as December 2019 and being blamed by the Wuhan authorities for doing so, raised a waive of compassion and anger all over China. Compassion for Li Wenliang reminds Chinese citizens of the “barefoot doctor,” a figure who mixes with the people and is ready to die in the fight against a common enemy (Lynteris 2012). Chinese propaganda enforces this discourse of sacrifice: physicians sacrifice themselves for the rest of society, Wuhan sacrifices itself for China, and China sacrifices itself for the world to avoid a pandemic. But the anger expressed in the social media also shows that the hierarchical power implemented by Xi Jinping through social control and digital surveillance fails to deliver alert in a timely manner, for fear of rumours that could disrupt China’s “harmonious society.”

 This is part of the Somatosphere’s Special Collection