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Dear Dr. Li: Chinese Netizens Confess To The Late Coronavirus Whistleblower

A portrait of the late Dr. Li Wenliang at his hospital in Wuhan, China. Li was a whistleblower in the early days of the country's coronavirus pandemic and died of COVID-19 on Feb. 7, 2020.
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A portrait of the late Dr. Li Wenliang at his hospital in Wuhan, China. Li was a whistleblower in the early days of the country's coronavirus pandemic and died of COVID-19 on Feb. 7, 2020.

For thousands of people, the late Dr. Li Wenliang feels very much alive. They flock to his social media page on Weibo each day to write to him:

"Hey Dr. Li, I just got a second COVID shot. It hurt a little. I miss you."

"Dr. Li, I pet a cute orange cat today! I'm happy!"

"When do you think the pandemic would be over? I long for the days without a mask."

Li was a whistleblower in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in China. He started warning colleagues about a mysterious pneumonia-like illness in December 2019 and was reprimanded by police for doing so. Then, Li caught the virus himself. He was pronounced dead exactly a year ago, last Feb. 7.

But his legacy lives on through his social media page. And as the anniversary of his death drew near, thousands of people a day posted to it in collective mourning:

"I cried again. It'll soon be February 7 again. I still remember."

"I'm so afraid that I'll forget you, Dr. Li."

"One year on, my respect still stands for you, the whistleblower!"

"Li Wenliang, your death weighs heavier than even the Tai Mountain."

In life, Li was an ophthalmologist in the Chinese city of Wuhan, diagnosing eye conditions and helping people see again.

In death, Li has become whatever you need him to be. For some he's a therapist. For others, his page is a confessional. Others use it to memorialize their loved ones lost during COVID:

"Will I pass my graduate exams tomorrow, Dr. Li?"

"Dr. Li, my boyfriend just broke up with me. Now my future is so uncertain."

"Yesterday my friend died. He loved playing the guitar. Maybe you two will meet."

Chinese internet is heavily censored and a general cultural reluctance to express emotion means I rarely see Chinese people this openly vulnerable and so uncomfortably honest.

Publicly, China is adamantly proud it controlled its epidemic so quickly — despite initial failures in late 2019 to identify the virus and warn people.

And those who talk to Li often express their misgivings about China's political climate:

"​Society is changing so quickly ... I'll stay true to myself. You and I, we are the same people, getting by every day but with our conscience intact."

"We've lost our progressiveness, but fortunately there are still people like you."

Some people appear to write to Li regularly, even if their missives are never answered. His silence makes him an easy sounding board for our darkest moments:

"I have postpartum depression ... I feel that there is no one to talk to but I want to be healthy for my son. Happy lunar new year, Dr. Li."

"I quarreled with my mother today"

"Please help me, Dr. Li. Every day beats me down and I am swept away by a crushing sensation"

"Your social media page is like a tree hollow where every moment, people hide their innermost thoughts."

And a shocking number of posts express a desire to self-harm.

Mental health is still a bit of a taboo subject in China, and most people do not seek out help for depression. A Shanghai University study estimates that about a third of people nationally suffered from depression, insomnia and other anxiety-related conditions during the peak of China's coronavirus epidemic.

Some turn to the Chinese tradition of leaving a note in a tree hollow.

"You find a tree hollow in the forest and seal your written secret in there so you can feel better," explains Huang Zhisheng, a professor and an artificial intelligence researcher at the Free University Amsterdam."

"Now despairing young people are turning to social media, finding profiles of those already deceased to quietly tell them of their emotional suffering," adds Huang.

Huang is responding to those writing to the whistleblowing doctor. Huang built an AI algorithm that scans Chinese social media, including the 1 million posts or so posts written to Li, and identifies those who need immediate help. A team of volunteers in China then reaches out to about 100 people a day this way.

During the pandemic, they saw a 40% surge in urgent cases compared to 2018 and 2019. In one case, they were able to reach someone's mother as they were taking their own life.

"Through the internet, we were able to identify an urgent case even before his loved ones right next to him even knew something was wrong," says Huang.

When Li died, millions of internet users posted the phrase 不能 or 不明白: "I can't" or "I don't understand." They asked: "Why do we ignore those who speak the truth? Does what I think matter?"

And so they continue writing to Li. About the weather, their pets, their past traumas. It's nice to feel as if someone is listening.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.