China Takes Drastic Steps on SARS — and I Mean Drastic

One word I thought I may have overused when writing about the epidemic is unprecedented. But it’s really the only word to describe what I am seeing during my final days in Beijing. Only a few hours ago the government held a two-hour, live press conference broadcast on national television. Trust me, it is a very, very rare occurence for this government to hold an open press conference of any kind– but live? Nationally broadcast? For two full hours, with international reporters hammering them with tough questions? Unfuckingprecedented.

But that’s just for starters. Now the Health Minister and the mayor of Beijing have been demoted, which is equivalent to their political crucifixion — remarkable, considering all the praise the governmnent has heaped on the national health ministry for its glorious handling of SARS. But that was last week, when it was okay to tell blatant lies. This is big news, a sign that the government is scared shitless of not taking drastic action to show the world it’s not totally evil. (Too late, in my book, but we’ll soon see how it goes down with the rest of the world.)

Wait — there’s still more. Next week is one of the “big three” full-week national holidays China celebrates each year. The government today canceled (or postponed) the entire holiday, another unprecedented move. The economic and psychological consequences are immeasurable. We are viewing history in the making here in Beijing, all brought about by a nasty variation of the common cold.

This press conference is amazing. I hope they show the entire thing on the world’s TV screens. The questions are merciless, the rulers are squirming. The NY Times has a pretty good article on today’s — yes, unprecedented — events. But you really had to be here to feel just how amazing the government’s turnaround is, adjusting, with a straight face, yesterday’s figure of 37 infected in Beijing to 339. You also have to be here to see how creepy this whole thing has become. You have to see all the masks and the taxi drivers wearing gloves and people refusing to meet with others under any circumstance (my Chinese tutor has canceled our last two lessons for this reason). It is truly historic, both the anxiety level and the upheavals it is causing within the normally unassailable, uncriticizable government. I am kind of sad that I will be moving out of Beijing at such an exciting and bizarre time. It is definitely going to be material for a stranger-than-fiction book.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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