SARS Wars

But all that changed after SARS. My first inkling of the coming panic came a week later when, at a World Health Organization press briefing about the situation in faraway Guandong Province, a German reporter, like the soothsayer in Julius Caesar, suddenly began screaming, “I thought you were doctors and not diplomats! Why don’t you tell us the government is still lying about Beijing?” My fellow reporters largely ignored him. But over the next several weeks, rumors of a cover-up became more common, and as they did, the city gradually shut down. Suddenly there was no wait for a table at a popular teahouse. Then food deliveries started arriving at my office, to prevent any lunchtime exposure. Each day something else closed: schools, movie theaters, Internet cafes, barbershops, the Forbidden City. Rather than panic, people watched the energy gradually drain from the city.

For me, this process culminated one day in early May, when I descended into the Dongsi Shitiao subway station at 9:30 p.m.–and found myself completely alone. The newspaper girls had departed days earlier. And when I boarded a train, I encountered just two other passengers.

At the time, SARS had infected barely 1,500 people and caused fewer than 100 deaths in Beijing; tragic, certainly, but not enough to singlehandedly shutter a city of 14 million. What prompted the alarm was ignorance stemming directly from government censorship and misinformation. As rumors leaked out of military hospitals, it became increasingly clear that the authorities were lying. But no one had any way of gauging which information was reliable.

About a week before my solo subway trip, Communist Party leaders fired Beijing’s mayor and the nation’s health minister and began giving out relatively accurate infection figures. Its new policy of openness and press freedom about SARS eventually recovered some of the government’s lost credibility. As a result, the crowds started returning to the streets. For the first time in a month, I had to share a bench on the subway.

China’s handling of SARS has sparked an interesting debate among Western observers. Optimists, such as the authors of a recent Economist cover story on China, believe the episode heralds a new openness that they compare to the great change in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Pessimists counter that, in fact, SARS provides yet another excuse for the Communist Party to clamp down, as it has done by quarantining large numbers of people. From my vantage point as a reporter for one of China’s leading independent magazines, I believe both sides misunderstand the nature of Chinese censorship, and with it, the likely impact of SARS. While widespread censorship still obtains, the situation here is not nearly so clear-cut–and there is reason for cautious optimism.

When SARS was first making news in Guangdong and Hong Kong, Caijing Magazine, where I work, was virtually the only publication outside the affected provinces to cover it. The rest of the Beijing press was waiting for the government to declare its position. As soon as the party decided on a policy of transparency, China was deluged with coverage–so much so that my magazine switched from a biweekly to a weekly schedule to keep up. As recent headlines attest, even state-run media are being allowed to cover SARS openly and accurately. “SARS Situation Remains Severe,” blared the May 2 headline of the state-controlled Beijing Today, which went on to report that “a shortage of beds in designated hospitals is preventing full-scale and timely quarantine of suspect patients.” An editorial in the government-run China Daily stated bluntly, “China should attach more importance to its public health care system, the weaknesses of which were highlighted by the [disease’s] outbreak.” My editor pointed out to me a series of investigative reports in the China Youth Daily from within the SARS wards, and a candid interview on state-run television in which Beijing’s acting mayor expressed deep concerns about the future, as examples of the kind of journalism that hadn’t existed in China just a month before.

But the reason that Chinese censorship is so difficult to understand is that it isn’t applied uniformly, and leads to striking disparities. Caijing, for example, has built its reputation exposing corporate scandals, such as fraudulent accounting. These stories often anger their subjects, but never aroused government censors until we reported on the banking system last year. China’s banks are closely controlled by the central government, which forces them to extend loans to insolvent state-owned enterprises, leading to staggering rates of non-performing loans. Terrified of exposure, the government reacted swiftly to our investigation of a bank in Guangdong Province, forcing the magazine to recall every copy and remove the story from its Web site.

Press freedom in China, then, should not be viewed diametrically–rising or falling like the level of water in a glass depending on government policy–but rather as more resembling an ice cube tray, where a great deal of freedom on one topic can exist alongside grave restrictions on another. This helps explain why press scrutiny of corporate mismanagement is largely permitted, but discussion of weaknesses in the banking system is not. Welcome as the freedom to report on SARS has been, such striking openness is not as unusual as it might at first appear. Nor, alas, will it necessarily trigger the spiral of ever-growing transparency that optimists predict.

SARS does, however, represent a genuine opening of the kind that China’s fledgling independent media are adept at exploiting. One reporter at my magazine described the ideal story as a ping-pong shot that just catches the edge of the table. Caijing‘s most popular tactic for pushing the bounds of any grant of journalistic freedom is to couch political and social criticisms–highly taboo subjects–in terms of economic reform. In late 2000, one major story managed to detail a host of illegal practices, from insider trading to price-fixing, among China’s large investment funds. (Unlike banks, the stock market is a relatively unimportant source of capital, not as fundamental to economic stability, and hence permitted much more honest coverage.) The next year, another story documenting nearly $100 million in fraudulent profits led to the collapse of a major corporation and the arrest of its president. Both articles carried broad political implications, given the subjects’ high-level government ties. But Caijing avoided censorship by presenting both as purely financial stories. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Wang Shuo, a colleague at Caijing, says that for Chinese journalists, “the most important survival skill is knowing how to deal with the government.”

The SARS story has provided an opportunity to employ the same deft touch. We recently published a feature recounting the debate within Chinese scientific and governmental circles about whether SARS was caused by a coronavirus or a rare form of airborne chlamydia. It was impossible to read the article without noticing how often bureaucrats had suppressed research and how much energy officials had put into advancing their pet theory about chlamydia, despite the protests of doctors and absent meaningful scientific evidence. Or take my recent work, on the success of American, Canadian, and Singaporean public health systems in controlling SARS. The government would no doubt object to an editorial arguing that China should copy America’s public-health and disaster-relief institutions. But readers surely got the same message from these “news” stories.

The newfound freedom on SARS contrasts sharply with the ongoing censorship of other topics, from the Tiananmen Square massacre of 14 years ago to the persecution of the Falun Gong sect to Taiwanese and Tibetan sovereignty. And the government could, of course, end its policy of openness on SARS at any time–though they’d pay a huge price both domestically and among crucial foreign investors. But until that happens, SARS presents an important opportunity. Having learned from the Tiananmen crackdown that rapid political change is not viable, China’s reformist journalists have adopted the path of step-by-step liberalization. Viewed within this framework, the SARS story may indeed represent an historic step forward–or, as my editor put it to me, “the greatest opportunity for opening the press” since 1989.

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