Rename the Chinese Embassy Street Name After the Coronavirus Whistleblower | Opinion

Many Americans have not yet heard his name, but Dr. Li Wenliang was a hero who shared early news of the coronavirus outbreak and defied efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to silence him as part of its coronavirus cover-up. We cannot let him be forgotten, nor allow his memory to be appropriated by the CCP. Dr. Li's ordeal represents the CCP's efforts not only to cover up the outbreak, but also to silence those who do not tow the party line.

For that reason, I joined my Senate colleagues, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), in introducing legislation to commemorate Dr. Li's life and sacrifice in Washington by renaming the street outside the Chinese embassy as Li Wenliang Plaza.

Dr. Li's story is harrowing. On December 30, Li received a message on WeChat, a widely used and heavily monitored social media platform, with the test results of an early coronavirus patient in Wuhan thought to have pneumonia. Those test results suggested the pneumonia was caused by SARS or a similar disease. He forwarded that message to a WeChat group of medical school classmates, warning them that they needed to get the word out to friends and family. The message went viral.

That same day, Wuhan health authorities banned medical personnel from saying anything publicly about the then-unknown pneumonia. Li was soon thereafter interrogated by the police and forced to sign a statement that spreading the information about coronavirus was "illegal behavior." Chinese media reported that police arrested seven people for "spreading rumors," a charge regularly used to silence those who disagree with the CCP's party line.

But there was no turning back. Li's WeChat post forced the CCP to start working overtime to control the narrative and tamp down on speculation about the virus. Because of Dr. Li's courage, it was forced to change course and acknowledge that an unknown pneumonia was indeed mid-outbreak in Wuhan.

After being threatened with prosecution if he dared push any more boundaries, Li went back to work. Despite the attempts to censor him, he stood undeterred, telling one Chinese media outlet, "I think a healthy society should not have just one voice." He continued to question the CCP's false propaganda, posting online that he wondered, as coronavirus spread, "why [the government's] official notices were still saying there was no human-to-human transmission."

While back on the job, Dr. Li began treating a patient with glaucoma and a fever that he believed to be connected to coronavirus. A few days later, he himself tested positive and later collapsed, tragically succumbing to the illness. Some Chinese news outlets received a directive to play down his death. Meanwhile, Chinese social media exploded, turning Li into a hero for his courageous defiance of government censorship.

Now, in the face of overwhelming evidence of its cover-up, the CCP has been forced to exonerate him and offer an apology to his family. They have even gone so far as to name him a "martyr."

Shortly before his death, Dr. Li told The New York Times that "[i]f the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic would have been a lot better." He also called for more "openness and transparency."

Li Wenliang memorial in Los Angeles
Li Wenliang memorial in Los Angeles MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

By renaming the street outside the Chinese embassy, Americans can honor those values and ensure Dr. Li's memory is never extinguished. There is also precedent for this move. In 2017, I introduced legislation to rename the street in front of the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. after the slain Russia opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. Today, the street on Wisconsin Avenue bears his name after successful efforts in coordination with the D.C. City Council.

These kinds of gestures are not merely symbolic, but serve as an enduring reminder to authoritarian regimes the world over that they cannot silence dissent. It can also create a rippling effect in free capitals around the world. After the U.S. renamed Boris Nemtsov Plaza, several countries, ranging from the Czech Republic to Lithuania to Ukraine, enacted similar measures.

We owe Dr. Li a great debt of gratitude for informing the world about coronavirus in the face of the Chinese Communist Party's totalitarian attempts to silence him. Renaming the street outside of the Chinese embassy will ensure that his name is remembered independently of the CCP's attempts to claim him. It will also serve as a critical reminder to all governments that the United States will always stand with oppressed voices across the world.

Marco Rubio, a Republican, is the senior U.S. senator from Florida.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.