The public sadness appears to have caught the Chinese government’s usually tightly-controlled propaganda apparatus on the back foot.
State broadcaster CCTV and the Global Times tabloid had reported his death on Weibo late Thursday but they deleted their reports soon after the news became the top search item on the platform with 12 million hits.
The hospital later issued a statement saying Li was undergoing emergency treatment before confirming his death early Friday.
Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said authorities likely ordered the delay to show there was an effort to save the doctor “because there was such an outpouring of emotion and they wanted to give a sense of hope”.
“Clearly, there was an effort nationally to channel these very strong emotions from across the country,” Yang told AFP.
But the government also did not want to “let it get out of hand” and instead move the grief in the direction that the leadership wants it to go, he said.
The party wants to show that only under its leadership can the country overcome the crisis, he said.
President Xi Jinping has called the fight against the virus a “people’s war”, while China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, on Friday described Li’s work as part of “our joint efforts fighting against” the virus.
In recent weeks, censors had allowed Weibo users to criticize Hubei officials — a move that placed attention on them instead of the central government.
China’s anti-graft agency said Friday it was sending investigators to Wuhan to look into “issues” related to Li.
After Li’s death, criticism went far beyond the anger directed at local officials, with users questioning the nature of the Communist state itself.