Hundreds of Chinese sign petition calling for free speech in wake of whistleblower doctor's death, raises 5 demands to Beijing

The signatories have since come under pressure from the authorities to stop their activity.

Kayla Wong | February 13, 2020, 03:34 AM

An online petition calling for greater freedom of speech has gained momentum in China.

Petition started in wake of Li Wenliang's death

The petition, prompted by the death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, was started by a group of academics, and has gathered hundreds of signatures, according to South China Morning Post.

It was addressed to the National People's Congress.

Five demands

The petition raised five demands for Beijing:

  1. To make Feb. 6 (the day Li died) a national day for free speech
  2. To protect people's right to freedom of expression, per Article 35 of the Chinese constitution
  3. To ensure no one is threatened, persecuted or censored for their speech or civil assembly; censorship and regulation on social media should be stopped immediately
  4. To give equal treatment, such as medical care, to people from Wuhan and Hubei province
  5. For the National People's Congress to call for an emergency meeting to not allow any political forces to illegally prevent this year's annual meeting, and to discuss the issue of protecting the people's free speech.

BBC Chinese further reported that the petition included a sixth request, which was to give Li an elaborate funeral.

The academics who led the petition

Among the academics who led the petition was Zhang Qianfan, a constitutional law professor at Peking University Law School and Guo Yuhua, a sociologist at Tsinghua University.

Guo told BBC Chinese that they hoped to change China for the better.

"Restricting free speech itself is disastrous," she said.

"If the situation is not fixed, not only is the disaster being covered up, it is being created as well. This has to change."

She further told SCMP that while the petition could be a gesture that "might not go very far before it's stifled", it is still "important to take a stand".

Signatories under pressure

Since starting the petition, the signatories have come under pressure from the authorities.

An academic, Hao Jian, told BBC Chinese that his department had recently texted and called him to warn him not to participate in this sort of activity again.

"They said I should take the official channels if I've anything to say," he said.

He added, "I told them, if writing an open letter to the National People's Congress is not the right channel, then what is considered the right and proper channel?"

Suspended from job

Another signatory, Xu Zhangrun, who was a law professor at Tsinghua University, had already been on the authorities' radar since he published an article that criticised the Chinese Communist Party for lifting the two-term limit for presidents, thereby allowing Chinese President Xi Jinping to stay in office indefinitely.

He was then suspended from his teaching position.

In early February, he wrote a strongly-worded letter that blamed the Party leaders for putting politics before the people, and criticised the government's crackdown on free speech, which makes it difficult for anyone to sound the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak.

Xu is not allowed to leave the country currently.

His name was censored on Weibo too -- a search of his name did not turn up any results.

Since the petition, his WeChat account has been blocked as well.

Top image bySTR/AFP via Getty Images