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?
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.
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|