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The Death of a Doctor Poses the Greatest Threat to China’s Xi Yet

Citizens begin to question not just the government response to coronavirus, but the overall competence of the Communist Party.

Photographer: Photo illustration by 731: Photos: Reuters (1); Zuma Press (3). Drawing: A widely circulated drawing of Dr. Li Wenliang from Chinese social media

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Martyrs have always played a central role in China’s opaque politics—both for authorities to rally nationalism and for the opposition to resist. Now the country’s spiraling virus outbreak has one who could become the face of the biggest crisis for President Xi Jinping since he took power.

Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old doctor in the central city of Wuhan, was sanctioned by local officials last month for publicly warning of the dangers of the coronavirus that is quickly making its way across the world. His death on Feb. 7 from Covid-19, as the disease from this new coronavirus is called, unleashed a wave of fury in online forums from citizens questioning not just the initial response, but also the overall competence of the Communist Party.