[Note: I have edited and retitled this post, which started off as an update on SARS, but ended up more an indictment of my host country's inherently wicked government. TPD, April 19]
I was intrigued to see the NYT article today on how the Chinese government’s mishandling of SARS has totally demolished its painstaking efforts to position itself as a fast-changing, dynamic society that is moving closer and closer to liberalizing its laws, its policies and its general philosophy. You must read this article in full to understand just how grievously China has damaged itself with this fiasco.
There is no doubt that in some ways China is changing, especially in regard to trade and economic policy. There have also been some baby-steps in the right direction when it comes to education (problem solving is slowly being encouraged, not simply “chalk and talk” memorization). But what SARS has shown the world is that for all the fireworks, for all the self-congratulatory praise we see on CCTV and read in China Daily about “the new China,” politically the country is rotten to the core, atrophied and senile.
The article wastes no time getting to the point:
China’s restrictions on information about a highly infectious respiratory illness has undermined five years of diplomacy intended to alter its image as a prickly regional power and to improve relations with neighboring countries, Asian politicians and analysts say.
Beijing’s secretiveness for much of the last several weeks about severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, contrasts sharply with the openness of its neighbors, even one-party states like Singapore. It also reflects the emphasis China puts on overall social stability above individuals’ well-being, many argue.
That last sentence contains the keys to understanding this strange nation. The obsession, to the point of insanity, that the government places on “social stability” and “harmony” makes this government an enemy to its own people. To ensure social stability and harmony, the fundamental necessity is to look good. This is a government that lives to make itself look good, so that people remain placid and accepting of (or better still, oblivious to) the shit going on around them.
Worried about a new catastrophic disease that could kill your citizenry by the thousands? Don’t give it a second thought — the Chinese plutocracy has the ideal answer: Don’t do anything. If you say nothing, you might be able to contain it. Taking that awful risk is far more attractive an alternative than informing people, and in so doing creating “disharmony.”
Now, any sane, rational government knows that contagious diseases don’t give a flying fuck about Mao’s Red Book and won’t be contained in just one village because Jiang Zemin wants them to be. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment and assume the Chinese leaders are not totally brain damaged. Let’s say they really believed this sort of wishful thinking might work. After learning that this policy was an absolute disaster — in fact, a tragedy of unimaginable dimensions for millions of Chinese citizens — wouldn’t they then know at least not to do the same thing again?
Normally the answer would be yes. But this is no normal government. This government did the exact same thing for nearly 10 years with AIDS, ignoring it, stigmatizing those infected, and setting up every conceivable obstacle to creating awareness and preventative measures for its people. Its people, for whom this government supposedly exists. Ha. (For reference, see what I wrote just a few days ago on the AIDS holocaust here in China.)
In other words, they learned nothing from their repellent “see-no-evil” approach to AIDS, which now threatens to turn China into the next Africa in terms of AIDS infection. The audacity, the sheer hubris of these pompous oafs who, as SARS began to spread through Beijing were lauding one another on television and clinking champagne glasses for the farcical rubber-stamp “People’s Congress” — these bastards knew, and they did nothing, just as they did nothing in the late-80s as contaminated blood flowed into the veins of its citizens across their vast nation, sentencing innocent men, women and children to a lifetime of stigmatization and the guarantee of death without dignity. Acknowledging the tragedy may have made them look bad, and we can’t have any of that now, can we?
They knew. And they said nothing. Fifteen years ago, and today. And you wonder why I am hard on the Chinese government?
As I prepare to leave this country, I worry less and less about telling the truth. To say that another way, I have always tried to tell the truth here, but often I felt I had to tone down my rancor, soften the blows. Right now, I just don’t care, and I want whoever happens to stop by this little site to know the truth about China, or at least what I perceive that truth to be: China is the Evil Empire, a tottering, power-drunk, paranoid nation of thugs dressing themselves up as saviors — a bad country. It was for the bastards we saw smiling and waving at the “People’s Congress” that my God made hell.
Footnote: I refer only to the Chinese government here. The people I know here are gracious, kind and good. They know, to a large extent, what their “leaders” are all about. Luckily for these good people, the SARS fuck-up has been of such great magnitude that it could end up resulting in long-term change and improvement here. Maybe. It has certainly opened the eyes of the world as to what “the new China” is all about.
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.