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Li Wenliang wears a respirator following the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 3, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media.

LI WENLIANG/GAN EN FUND/Reuters

Fury, grief and open demands for democratic freedoms erupted in China Friday following the death of a doctor detained by police after he warned about the appearance of a new virus in Wuhan in December.

Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, 33, told friends on Dec. 30 about the emergence of a “SARS-like” virus. He was then detained by police for spreading rumours and, on Jan. 3, forced to sign a letter attesting that he had “severely disrupted social order.”

Only weeks later did local authorities begin to acknowledge the danger and severity of the new virus, which by then had spread widely. It has now killed 637 in China, infected more than 31,000 and been confirmed in 24 other countries.

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Dr. Li’s prescient warning, and the reprisals he endured for telling the truth, made him a heroic figure in China – and his death Friday became a national focal point for outrage about China’s handling of the outbreak, which has revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of the country’s one-party political system.

Dr. Li ”was a fallen doctor, a patient wearing a ventilator, and a citizen holding up his ID card to say no to a lie. If his death still can’t awaken the nation, we are not worthy to continue to live on this planet,” wrote Zhou Lian, a philosopher at Renmin University, on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.

Others were more bold. “We want democracy. We want the right to vote,” one wrote.

“Demand freedom of speech,” said another. “Today’s Wuhan could be us tomorrow.”

Censors deleted many comments, banishing references to the letter Dr. Li was forced to sign. But the deletions could not fully excise the outpouring of opinion.

“A floodgate has been opened,” said Lynette Ong, a scholar of authoritarian politics at the University of Toronto.

Rarely has so much public condemnation become so plainly visible in modern China. “I do believe this is a historical moment. A structural shift is coming, and time will tell what it amounts to," she said. “It may not amount to anything this time, but everything is cumulative.”

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For two weeks now, Chinese officials have sought to quell the virus using the full suite of tools available to an authoritarian government. President Xi Jinping declared a “people’s war” on the outbreak. China’s leaders have placed an entire province on lockdown, enforced urban quarantines in numerous cities and villages, used community-level population control to enforce isolation and mustered construction workers and medical professionals alike to rapidly augment health-care resources.

The construction of two new hospitals in fewer than two weeks won China global praise, including from World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said: “I have never seen, in my life, this kind of mobilization.”

In a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday, Mr. Xi said China has “full confidence” in its ability to defeat the virus.

The ability to “concentrate resources to solve major problems” is a “notable advantage of China’s socialist system. … The novel coronavirus will be no exception,” the state-run Xinhua news agency said in one of two commentaries published Thursday.

The other, however, acknowledged that “the virus outbreak is a test to China’s strength in every respect.”

Indeed, the medical crisis has exposed the weaknesses in a system where political loyalty can be more richly rewarded than professional competence, where authorities regularly suppress information considered a threat to social stability and where party elders have prioritized high-tech infrastructure over top-flight social services.

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Warnings from low in the hierarchy – even from those who hold respected positions, such as medical doctors – can go ignored because Communist Party governance relies so heavily on orders from above, critics say.

”This political system is upside down,” said a Chinese political scholar who is not being identified by The Globe and Mail because of the risk of reprisal for speaking openly. “Officials don’t really care about the people. They care about their superiors. That’s why they were initially very slow in their response to the outbreak. But when there is an order from above, people have to act very quickly.”

The emergence of the virus also comes after a recent series of major challenges for Beijing.

“It’s the accumulation of so many crises: the trade war with the United States, the Hong Kong movement, the victory of Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan and, most importantly, the downturn of the economy,” said Feng Chongyi, a scholar at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney who studies contemporary Chinese history.

Widespread belief that an initial government cover-up delayed a proper response has only provided new grounds to question the competence of officials, he said.

Although it boasts the world’s most impressive collection of bullet trains, megabridges and airports, China ranks 82nd in the world in per-capita spending on health care.

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But Beijing has long proven adept at shifting blame to lower levels of government. Public anger has been trained at officials in Wuhan, where the mayor famously said he was not initially authorized to discuss the virus and where local health authorities said they had no evidence of person-to-person transmission even when doctors and nurses were falling sick.

On Friday, the National Supervisory Commission, the country’s feared disciplinary inspectors, said they would dispatch a team to Wuhan to investigate “problems reported by the public concerning Dr. Li Wenliang.”

“There is systemic local anger,” said Shaun Rein, an expert in consumer behaviour who is founder of China Market Research Group. “The feeling is if people had listened to this doctor who was trying to help the country, then maybe he would still be alive and maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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