17 Years After SARS Crisis, Beijing Controls Coronavirus Information

A new strain of coronavirus, discovered on December 31 in Wuhan and initially reported as a viral pneumonia outbreak, has so far infected at least 830 globally and killed 25. Most confirmed infections so far have been in China, with a few in nearby Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand, and the first confirmed infection in the U.S. reported in Washington State on Tuesday. On Monday, a Chinese scientist confirmed  the disease capable of spreading by human-to-human transmission, and alarm is especially high as China prepares for the national Lunar New Year holiday–the world’s largest annual human migration.

The infectious new disease has been compared to the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that originated in China in 2002. SARS killed nearly 800 people in Asia between 2002 and 2003, and Beijing’s slow response to the emerging crisis attracted serious international criticism. Bloomberg News reports on how Chinese leaders are attempting to avoid a political crisis amid resounding global skepticism of its commitment to preventing public health disasters, noting the different social and political contexts in China 17 years after SARS:

“China’s leaders had to upgrade the security level of the crisis to ensure the stability of Chinese society and also because of China’s international reputation,” said Wang Peng, associate research fellow at Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies. “The virus has the potential to negatively impact China’s image.”

[…] In response [to media an internet users’ urging for more transparency], the party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper carried a front-page editorial on Tuesday supporting Xi’s call for action. The president stressed the need to inform the public of official policies to “safeguard social stability.” Premier Li Keqiang instructed departments to “spare no effort” to counter the outbreak, while a social media account under the party’s Central Politics and Law Commission pledged to punish officials who withheld information.

[…] “In general, the government is using the traditional Chinese Communist Party approach,” Fu [King-wa, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong‘s Journalism and Media Studies Centre] said. The goal was “to control the information, to control the media, to control the narrative and to give the people the idea that the government is handling the issue,” he said.

The risk of a public health emergency damaging the top leadership has only increased under Xi, who has taken more direct oversight over economic and national security issues than his predecessors. That means there’s no one else to blame if people decide the current outbreak has been mismanaged, said Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies and author of numerous books on Chinese politics. […] [Source]

Since SARS, Chinese leaders have regularly attracted criticism for their opacity when responding to other public health crises, including a contaminated milk scandal in 2008, a deadly 2011 high-speed train crash in Wenzhou, and more recently vaccine scandals last year.

Bloomberg News reports on online complaints about a lack of fresh information on the crisis, and on efforts by Chinese social media users to find and share information about protecting against the virus:

Most of the criticism on Weibo and WeChat focused on Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus originated. Officials initially reacted to the social media flurry by cracking down on those they accused of spreading rumors: local police said on Jan. 1 they investigated and penalized eight people who allegedly spread misinformation.

[…] “People don’t realize how serious this outbreak is because the local government wasn’t transparent enough,” said one user on Weibo.

[…] Social media users do appear to be using the platforms to find information to protect themselves from the virus. Phrases related to the virus were among the most-searched on Weibo, though the service briefly promoted “President Xi Jinping’s New Year’s Greetings” above those trending topics.

Some users took a lighter approach. A series of memes proposed creative alternatives to gloves and face masks which are selling out across the country, suggesting that people use condoms to cover their fingers, and bras to protect their mouths. […] [Source]

In recent days, there has been a spike in confirmed infections (most reports, including that from Bloomberg linked above, cited only 440 cases on Tuesday). While this added to suspicions of local or central authorities controlling information about the disease, the South China Morning Post quoted experts explaining that the reporting delay was due to the strict system in effect since SARS. On Twitter, University of Chicago Political Science Professor Dali L. Yang provides additional context on the delay (click through for the full thread):

The Wall Street Journal’s Mike Bird shared a tweet translating the frontpage headline of Wuhan’s daily newspaper:

At China Media Project, David Bandurski recalls that official embarrassment over international accusations of a cover-up of essential early SARS information in 2003 ushered in a “window of relative openness.” He continues to survey domestic coverage of the current outbreak, noting that official Party news sources are starkly dominating the narrative:

[…] Reporting at The Beijing News [where the coronavirus is the top story] comes not just from official Xinhua News Agency releases, or from “mainstream” (in the official sense) Party media such as China Central Television. There are bylines from the newspaper’s own reporters, one interviewing an infectious disease expert in Wuhan, another offering current updates on the situation in various cities, another reporting statements from health officials in Beijing. There are reports from the ground in Wuhan, and also from Hong Kong.

This is not to say, of course, that the coverage is comprehensive, or that it necessarily offers a full balance of perspectives. Official sources of information seem to take precedence.

[…] This most recent infectious disease crisis, with its echoes of SARS, once again exposes the basic nature of China’s Party media outlets, and their interest in “serving the Party” over the public interest – the domination of the “Party nature” (党性) over the “people nature” (人民性), to reference the debate over news values that raged in the late 1980s between then People’s Daily editor in chief Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), a proponent of liberalization of the press, and the hardliner Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木).

If we look today at central Party media, we can see the Party agenda obliviously playing out right in the midst of this latest health crisis. [Source]

At The New York Times, Li Yuan reports that China–now under much tighter information control policies than those in place during SARS–is silencing experts, officials, and journalists who don’t follow the official line on the disease:

[… The] kind of openness [displayed in media coverage of the domestic SARS situation] is unimaginable now. Last week, when a group of Hong Kong journalists went to the Wuhan hospital that took in most coronavirus patients, the police detained them for a few hours. They were asked to delete their TV footage and hand in their phones and cameras for inspection.

[…] On Tuesday, Ms. Luqiu [who had shadowed then Beijing mayor Wang Qishan during the SARS crisis] wrote an article for qq.com, the news site owned by the internet giant Tencent, about the measures the Hong Kong government has taken in dealing with the virus. The article was deleted 10 hours later.

China’s disclosures have improved in many ways since SARS. The government admitted the problem faster. Beijing officials have shown determination to be more transparent. A top party committee said on Tuesday that it would not tolerate any efforts to hide infections.

“Whoever deliberately delays or conceals reporting for the sake of their own interests will be forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame,” the committee said in a post on WeChat. The post was later deleted. [Source]

In an opinion essay at the Washington Post, John Pomfret notes similarities in the tightly-controlled official narratives of SARS and today’s coronavirus:

Now another coronavirus has emerged, and the parallels with SARS are striking. Like SARS, the new virus emerged from a live food market, although this time in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. As with SARS, the local authorities were slow to report the new disease because they did not want the news to interfere with Spring Festival celebrations and a major political meeting in Wuhan that ended on Jan. 15.

Just like 17 years ago, China’s police persecuted alleged rumor-mongers after the government claimed the disease was under control. The party began to move only when courageous people challenged the government’s narrative and demanded action, except this time they did it through social media and not through text messages.

Chinese journalist Jing Zhao, known as Michael Anti, surely hit a nerve on Twitter (which is blocked in China) when he wrote: “some local officials act as if appointed not to serve humanity but to serve the virus. They interrogate physicians who reveal the epidemic, lock up those who warn about it online, and unreasonably give big banquets as if their main mission were to optimize the virus’ spread.”

I remember when optimists, including some of my Western colleagues, claimed the SARS epidemic had taught the party a lesson that openness was the wave of the future. In reality, China has made a firm commitment in the past decade to controlling information all the more tightly. [Source]

As millions of Chinese prepare to travel for the upcoming national holiday, Wuhan and three nearby cities are now on transit lockdown as part of the government effort to contain the virus. The South China Morning Post reports:

All public transport in and out of the Chinese city of Wuhan, including trains, buses and ferries, stopped at 10am on Thursday as the central government imposed a quarantine to try to contain the spread of a coronavirus that has killed 17 people and infected hundreds more.

Local residents had rushed to railway stations and the airport after the announcement of the lockdown on Wednesday night. The government told residents not to leave the city without “special reasons”.

On Thursday afternoon, the neighbouring city of Huanggang also announced a lockdown, starting at midnight, halting its public transport and trains out of the city. People were ordered not to leave unless in exceptional circumstances.

Two other cities in Hubei province, Ezhou and Chibi, later announced that they would also be locked down, starting at 4pm and midnight respectively. [Source]

More recent coverage from The Guardian reports ten cities implementing relevant lockdown measures, and notes that state-run media announced the cancellation of holiday events in Beijing.

Meanwhile, despite the quick international spread of the disease, the World Health Organization Wednesday decided against declaring the coronavirus an international emergency, noting that could change as more information emerges. At Wired, Megan Molteni reports:

After several hours of closed-door meetings, the 16-person panel of independent experts tasked with advising WHO leadership on the issue took a vote and found themselves split down the middle. WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus told reporters he has asked the emergency committee to meet again Thursday to continue the discussion. “This is an evolving and complex situation,” he said. “The decision about whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence.”

[…] “What matters is the route of transmission,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s director of health emergencies, told reporters Wednesday. So far, Chinese health authorities have presented evidence that suggests the respiratory virus is spreading through close contact with infected individuals, as is typical with coronaviruses. If that’s the only route, the outbreak is containable, Ryan said. “But at this time it is not possible to determine that absolutely.”

To better assess how the virus is traveling between people, the WHO is requesting more details from China about its rapidly growing number of cases. Specifically, the health agency would like to see data on when patients started showing symptoms, so it can start calculating how quickly the virus is moving through the population. WHO officials also want to know how Chinese health authorities are tracking potential exposures.

In addition, the agency has encouraged countries that have experienced exported cases to share any information they have about possible spread. […] [Source]


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