2003 April 08 Tuesday
Repressive Governments Make Fight Against SARS More Difficult

When Li Liming, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control, apologized for China's handling of SARS he made a statement which was a classical case of apologizing for something other than the main thing that the Chinese government did wrong.

"Today, we apologize to everyone," Li was quoted as saying. "Our medical departments and our mass media suffered poor coordination. We weren't able to muster our forces in helping to provide everyone with scientific publicity and allowing the masses to get hold of this sort of knowledge."

They failed to coordinate? They failed to muster their forces? Is that really what they should be apologizing for? Alan Fung interviews Peter Sandman, PhD, a risk-communication specialist in Princeton, New Jersey, and his wife Jody Lanard, MD, a psychiatrist about the Chinese government's failure to be honest about SARS.

"We're mad at them because they lied, and continue to lie. WHO speaks in diplomatese about China's increasing cooperation. What WHO is saying internally about China would be unprintable in a family newspaper. China's apology will count when they apologize for lying. And it will never happen."

Now you know: discount what the World Health Organization is saying publically about the level of cooperation it is getting from the Chinese government.

The Chinese government failed to handle the SARS crisis properly in large part because to do so would have requred telling too many people both internally and externally that they had a problem. Their doctors couldn't react properly because they were not given enough information. The lack of official acknowledgement also decreased the speed with which their scientists were mobilized to study the disease. Even today the Chinese population, still ignorant about SARS for the most part, is not going to adopt strategies to avoid infection.

Phar Kim Beng reports that the authoritarian Malaysian government is being less than totally forthcoming with its populace.

The Malaysian Home Ministry has officially directed all local dailies to "adjust" their reports on SARS by leaving out any mention of fatalities. This was to prevent Malaysia from being seen in an adverse light. Echoes of how North Korea and Myanmar manage their images resonate. Nor is China impervious to the temptation to resort to such ploys.

Is the Malaysian government lying? Deceiving? Forcing their press to deceive? Can we trust the accuracy of that which they do report?

The Taipei Times says the SARS crisis has revealed the true nature of the mainland China government as a totalitarian regime.

However, every cloud has a silver lining. SARS has also let the people of Taiwan see the Chinese government for what it is -- a totalitarian regime -- and also to see the "one country, two systems" for what it is -- a scam. Hong Kong, where the "one country, two systems" policy has been instituted, has become an area severely struck by the epidemic due to the inappropriate policy. The severe economic blows and public panic caused in Hong Kong by SARS make the people of Taiwan thank their lucky stars that their country is not also a special administrative region. Otherwise, the SARS epidemic would likely have gotten out of control in Taiwan the way it did in Hong Kong.

Minxin Pei, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, strikes a similar note in a Financial Times article entitled A country that does not take care of its people.

Initial deception by lower-level officials leads higher authorities to misjudge the situation. Without independent sources of information, senior officials are ill-placed to rise to a crisis, especially when the political pressure to maintain a façade of regime unity outweighs the need to adopt an effective response. Consequently, an official policy based on bad information becomes the party line. As a rule, the severity of the crisis is played down and blame for the problem is assigned elsewhere. In many cases, even the very existence of a crisis is vigorously denied. Afterwards, keeping the official story straight becomes the overriding goal, subverting the urgency of containing the situation.

Pei does an excellent job of describing all the forces at work in a regime which lacks democratic legitimacy.

CNN Senior China Analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam reports that the new Chinese leader Hu Jintao ordered greater freedom of reporting for the Chinese media.

According to media circles in Beijing, there is no denying that not long after Hu had become CCP General Secretary last November, the 60-year-old leader took steps to gradually lift the party's straitjacket on the media.

Much of Hu's fresh approach has been spelt out by Politburo member in charge of ideology and propaganda, Li Changchun, in a series of meetings with media officials and senior editors since January.

The way the Chinese media have been restrained from reporting on SARS calls into question whether the freeing up of the media in China is really going to happen. The reasons the party sees a need for secrecy and deception, as described by Minxin Pei above, are not going to go away.

When the Chinese regime stops locking up people for posting negative news in internet chat rooms then talk of press reform can be taken seriously.

As rumors swirled around China over the outbreak of atypical pneumonia, Internet chatrooms face the same gag orders on the spread of the disease as the state-run media, website managers say.

The Chinese public continue to remain in the dark about the threat posed by SARS. In the absence of truth people will make up rumours that embody their worst fears.

Update: More evidence that the Chinese government is still not being honest about the extent of SARS infection in China:

The government says 19 people have been infected in the capital Beijing, with four deaths.

But health workers in the capital have told the BBC that at least 100 people have been infected.

Keep in mind that if the bulk of the population of China isn't being told to watch out for symptoms of SARS then many who are getting milder cases of SARS are not making an effort to see a doctor in response to their illness. Therefore doctors in China are probably never seeing many of the Chinese who suffer from SARS. Of course, this also means that those milder sufferers are not being quarantined and that they are therefore more likely to spread the disease.

Retired Beijing military surgeon Dr. Jiang Yanyong, aged 72, reports the 19 SARS cases which have been officially reported in Beijing are the tip of the iceberg.

Jiang said doctors and nurses at two other hospitals told him at least seven deaths have occurred in their hospitals and that there were 106 cases of the disease in Beijing _ more than five times the figure announced by authorities.

More on Dr. Yanyong here.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 April 08 03:15 PM  Culture Open Versus Closed Societies

carol said at April 10, 2003 8:16 PM:

it's easy here in the USA to panic over the news we hear of SARS in Mainland China. Our daughter is a teacher in Beijing and we seriously wonder whether we should encourage her to break her contract and return home.. she is a delimna herself since she believes they are not given the whole story over there.... what's a parent to do??? any suggestions from other parents out there of young adults. thanks so
carol from NJ

David said at April 13, 2003 2:28 AM:

Its hard to advise anybody what to do with their own life, cause its different value to everybody. In my case, as a Canadian, working in HK and required to travel back and forth to China and cities like BJ. Sometimes, I don't have any choice. But I would recommend if your daugther decide to stay, perform all kinds of precaution. Wear masks, personal hygiene
Here are some info from Hong Kong Medical Association: http://www.hkma.com.hk/english/care/SARS-report-Eng.ppt
Guide to prevent SARS:

Hope all is well,

Kevin Hessel said at April 14, 2003 10:54 PM:

I am a young adult myself. I am working in Changchun, China(north of Beijing). I have considered coming home as well. I am completely in agreement that the government is handling this situation with SARS terribly. I aslo believe their coverage of the war in Iraq is so completely one sided that it is not even factual. That is a whole new topic though. A doctor and a nurse are known to have SARS here in Changchun and seven other doctors expected of having it. Obviously, a patient must have given it to them. That was Friday, and today(Tuesday) the media has yet to inform people that there are cases in Changchun now, which infuriates me as a resident now. Aside from that, I do feel that just going about your daily life is quite safe. Traveling in a plane or even worse a train is maybe not the best idea though. Just use common sense in terms of washing your hands and having good hygiene. My parents are quite worried for me as well.
Best Wishes, God Bless, and Happy Easter--Kevin Hessel

Wallace said at April 15, 2003 12:27 AM:

I understand your concern. It is reasonable to worry about the situation due to some contigencies. However, I think it is up to your daught to make such decision. She might know more than overseas people. I stay here for long and urge government and citizens to do more and to do more intesively to keep the city safer. I agree with David it is necessary to perform all preventive things, such as avoiding crowd, washing hands frequently and wearing masks more often...

Patricia said at April 18, 2003 5:19 AM:

For those of us who are teaching in China, I think that minimizing exchange of papers in class could also be a good precautionary measure. I'm cancelling my exams for a bit, and will not have students use the headsets/microphones in the audiolab. I would appreciate viewing any valid list of precautionary measures, if one is available

Emma Must said at April 18, 2003 7:21 AM:

I'm also working in Changchun - at a university in the city. Does anyone out there have any hard evidence of SARS cases in the city? We have fairly well-substantiated reports of one SARS patient in Number One Hospital Changchun, as of yesterday, but I'm seeking additional info before making a decision about what to do.

Many thanks for any info.


Randall Parker said at April 18, 2003 10:19 AM:

Patricia, frequent hand-washing is important. If you have the authority you should make all the children wash their hands a on arrival, before lunch, and after lunch. Also, any student who has a cough or temperature or any other symptom of an infection should be sent home.

Be aware that in Hong Kong scientists there believe there that a mutation in SARS has made it more lethal for younger people and children than it was previously. They had 3 children die of it and previously it was much milder in children and young adults.

I make a lot of SARS posts on my FuturePundit web log and in particular see the Natural Dangers archive.

Michael said at April 22, 2003 6:13 AM:

I'm a teacher working in Changchun. In one sense, I am staggered at the governments response to SARS. It is totally lacking in logic. If they had owned up to the disease several months ago, then the problem could have been contained. What I see on the streets of Changchun now scares me a little. Two days ago, it was unusual to see anyone here wearing a mask. Now, virus like, the masks are everywhere. It seems to me that what the current campaign to fight SARS is actually doing is spreading fear and disinformation-the exact combination best suited to enhance the prospects of an epedemic.
In another sense, the actions of the Chinese government come as no surprise. It's rather similar to the Soviet reaction to Chernobyl. First, pretend it isn't happening, then ask for help when it's already too late. A cursory glance at two editions of the China Daily reveals all. On April 7, the headline read: 'SARS spread contained', yet the April 20 edition of the same paper reveals:'Premier urges honesty over SARS'
One last note on SARS here in Changchun. The figures for infections and fatalities seem tp originate from thin air. No-one here seems to know the whole story. It's probably safe to assume though that the government's official figure of three confirmed cases will prove to be as reliable as previous forecasts for other areas.

André said at April 22, 2003 1:13 PM:


I am supposed to go in Changchun on May 20th. How is the situation out there? Do you know the number of SARS infections in this city? I really want to go but maybe I am minimizing the gravity of the situation. Could you please give me some advises.

Thanks a lot,


Shane said at April 29, 2003 5:23 AM:


I find the situation in Changchun looks a lot worse than it really is. The locals seem to know as much as we do. There are officially still only 7 cases but rumors are saying anywhere from 20 to 50. Know one seems to really know or know of anyone who really has it. A lot of people are being very cautious with masks and gloves. They are doing a lock down at the universities to slow student travel. There were a few foreigners who over reacted at a conference with health and education officials but things seem to be safe otherwise.

David said at May 2, 2003 6:09 PM:

Regarding Jilin Province:

Ministry of Health Press Release (May 2) on SARS

The Press Office under the Ministry of Health published Friday afternoon a press release in the latest SARS situation on the Chinese mainland. On May 2, 13 provinces reported new SARS cases and new suspected cases, 4 provinces reported new suspected cases, and the remaining 14 provinces reported no case. By 10 am of May 2, 26 provinces reported SARS cases.

From 10 am of May 1 to 10 am of May 2, China reported 176 new cases (including 28 medical workers), 21 patients recovered and 11 deaths. Of the 176 cases, 80 used to be suspected cases and now are confirmed as SARS patients.
Of these figures:

Jilin reported 5 new cases (of which 3 used to be suspected cases and now are confirmed as SARS patients)

For other cities and provinces, refer to http://www.china.org.cn/english/2003/May/63796.htm

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