By Lisa Kava
Three years ago today, on February 7, 2020, Dr. Li Wenliang, of Wuhan, China, died of COVID-19 at the age of 34. Though his name was little known here, in China he was widely mourned as a hero and a martyr.
Dr. Li was a whistleblower, an ophthalmologist who, in December 2019, warned his colleagues on social media about the appearance of a mysterious new virus, urging them to take precautions. He was censured by the Wuhan government and forced to write an apology letter acknowledging that his warning was a “rumor” and a “crime.” Dr. Li contracted the virus in January 2020, while treating a woman with glaucoma, and decided to speak out from his hospital bed. “A healthy society should not have only one voice,” he said in his final interview.
There is only one memorial to Dr. Li in the world, and it is in Central Park, right inside the Central Park West and West 96th Street entrance. It is a quintessential New York City memorial — a plaque on a bench — with the words, “In memorial of Dr. Li Wenliang who sounded the alarm on Covid-19,” followed by the above quote in Chinese. Last Sunday, about 100 people gathered around the bench to remember and honor Dr. Li.
“We refuse to forget,” said Fengsuo Zhou, a Chinese human-rights activist, who co-organized the Central Park gathering with other volunteer activists. Zhou is the incoming executive director of the nonprofit Human Rights in China. He was a student leader in the historic Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. “Dr. Li was a reluctant whistleblower at the onset of the global pandemic,” Zhou told West Side Rag after the gathering. “His censure, tragic death, and last words made him a national martyr for freedom of speech. Had his voice been heard from the beginning, the world could have been much better prepared.”
Sunday’s commemoration of Dr. Li on the Upper West Side was one of many that took place worldwide. Others were held in Boston, LA, Berlin, London, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo, Stuttgart, Washington D.C., and Munich.
Here, there were speeches about Dr. Li and freedom of speech. “He was a victim of censorship and a role model of civic duty,” Jamie, another of the co-organizers said. “He was reprimanded by the local police and finally decided to tell the media. We gathered to honor him and ordinary people who died of COVID-19. We encouraged each other to take action in the social justice movement.” Attendees also had the opportunity to write to protesters imprisoned in China.
“Dr. Li was a brave man,” an attendee added. “He took on the responsibility of civil duty. In China, this is very hard to do.”
We asked the Central Park Conservancy about the plaque. “It was placed via the Conservancy through our bench endowment program,” a spokesperson emailed. “A donor reached out to the Conservancy, and the plaque was installed in April 2022. The donor wishes to remain anonymous.”
Jamie, who does not know the donor personally, but connected with him through a chat group, said “he wanted the bench to be seen by many people. It was important to him that it be near an entrance to Central Park.”
“To me, it is not just a bench, but a site,” said Jimmy, another attendee. “It is a place for Chinese people in New York City to gather, reflect, and form a sense of solidarity. It is a public space and that is important. Maybe there will be more events held here in the future. I hope so.”
The New York Times interviewed Dr. Li from his hospital bed shortly before he died and, more recently, released an investigative report about his final days in the hospital. Video summarizing the investigation can be found here.