Floral tributes left outside Wuhan Central Hospital in memory of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who sounded the alarm…
Floral tributes sit outside Wuhan Central Hospital in memory of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who was reprimanded by local police in the early days of Wuhan's pandemic, in central China's Hubei province, Feb. 6, 2021.

WUHAN, CHINA - The message was tucked into a bouquet of chrysanthemums left by a mourner at the back of Wuhan Central Hospital to honor a Chinese whistleblower doctor who died from the coronavirus a year ago. It was simply the number of a Bible verse: Matthew 5:10.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," the verse reads.

A year ago Sunday, Dr. Li Wenliang died from the virus first detected in this Chinese city. A small stream of people marked the anniversary with visits to the hospital Saturday, some leaving flowers.

'Spreading rumors'

The 34-year-old ophthalmologist was one of eight whistleblowers whom local authorities punished early on for "spreading rumors" in a social media group about a SARS-like virus. 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 shared the information because he wanted to warn others.

The public also watched as he fell ill with the disease he was warning them about. His condition  eventually worsened, and he died.

Li's death was initially reported by Chinese state media on the night of February 6, 2020, but the outlets quickly withdrew their reporting. Some hours later, in the early morning of February 7, Wuhan Central Hospital announced his death.

FILE - Coronavirus whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang, whose death was confirmed on February 7, 2020, is shown in his protective mask, at the Wuhan Central Hospital, China.

Chinese people grieved over his death, online and offline. Mourners brought flowers to the hospital, while online some people were furious and demanded freedom of speech — posts that were quickly censored.

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 investigated 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 labeled 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.

FILE - Residents attend an exhibition on the city's fight against the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, Jan. 23, 2021.

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.

It wasn't until last month that China finally allowed a WHO team into the country to investigate the pandemic.

Wuhan for the most part has returned to normal, with shopping malls and streets crowded, and there is little visible evidence of the suffering the city went through. Still, a few of its residents mourn quietly.

No large-scale tribute

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.

The person who left the flowers and Bible verse Saturday declined to be interviewed, saying it was inconvenient.

Another couple who laid a bouquet at the front of the hospital were told by plainclothes security to take their flowers to the back of the building, where there was a garden.

A small collection of bouquets, some with messages tucked deep in the flowers, had been laid there by Saturday evening.

"Thank you, Dr. Li Wenliang," read one.