He was one of eight whistleblowers who local authorities punished early on for “spreading rumours” about a SARS-like virus in a social media group. His situation, eventually made public in media reports, made him a potent symbol for the perils of going against official messaging in China.
The Chinese public embraced Li, whose presence online had painted a picture of an ordinary person. His wife was pregnant and he was soon to be a father. He sent the “rumour” because he wanted to warn others.
The public also watched as he fell ill with the disease he was warning them about, eventually worsened, and died.
Several days later Zhong Nanshan, a renowned epidemiologist, shed tears for Li in an interview with Reuters, calling him a “hero of China”.
But when President Xi Jinping honoured the “heroes” of the “people’s war” against the virus in September, there was no mention of Li’s contribution.
While people on the streets around Li’s hospital say life in the city has mostly returned to its usual rhythm, they still revere Li for his actions.
As Reuters journalists visited the area around the hospital on Saturday they were followed by two men in plainclothes who identified themselves as “hospital parking security,” and local guards blocked a cameraman from filming the hospital entrance.
“He was the first to tell us about the virus,” said Li Pan, 24, who owns an online store.
“He must have considered the impact would be huge, but he still raised the alarm. That was really brave,” Li said.
Ji Penghui, a 34 year-old designer, said he heard about Li’s warning in the early days and rushed to stock up on masks before the officials spoke openly about the virus.
“The public strongly acknowledges him, and personally, I think he should receive more official honours, rather than being treated as what he did is already in the past” Ji said.
Ji said the government made mistakes in the early stages, but it has handled it well since.
A World Health Organisation team is currently in Wuhan researching the early stages of the outbreak, and is preparing to present its findings, team member Dominic Dwyer told Reuters on Friday.
The team visited the sprawling Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, thought to be where the virus first became an outbreak, which led to a pandemic that has infected over 105 million people and killed nearly 3 million worldwide.
The market site has been shut to the public since the beginning of last year.
The origins of the virus have become highly politicised, and some Chinese diplomats and state media have thrown support behind theories that the virus potentially originated in another country.
While 80-year-old Qian Wende said he does not know where the virus came from, he regards Li as a hero.
“We should be commemorating his contribution to fighting the pandemic,” he said.
Li’s death seemed to raise a challenge to the central government, as public anger swelled.
“A healthy society should not have just one type of voice,” Li had said in an interview with the Chinese business magazine Caixin last year.
Central government authorities conducted an investigation in Li’s death, concluding that the officer who punished the doctor should be reprimanded. One police officer was given a demerit, while another was given an official warning, state media later reported.
At the conclusion of the investigation, authorities published a Q&A, in which they noted: “Li was a Communist Party member, not a so-called ‘person who was against the system.’” It said those who labelled him that way were “enemy forces.”
Since then, the epidemic has largely been controlled within China’s borders, and the narrative has shifted to one of triumph. China just released a film — Days and Nights in Wuhan — that celebrates China’s official line that the measures it took, including the unprecedented lockdown it imposed on the city, bought precious time for the world to prepare for the pandemic.
That victorious narrative has been underscored more by the devastation the pandemic has wreaked in many other countries. However, many have questioned China’s response to the virus and its level of transparency during the initial weeks.
Li’s death is still a sensitive topic, and his family has refrained from giving media interviews. While his Weibo profile has been left up, there has been no large-scale public memorial.