Another must-read article holds no

Another must-read article holds no punches as it analyzes the long-term effects the past week’s amazing revelations will have on China and its international reputation. (And you think I’m hard on China?)

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SARS Heads West; Grows More Deadly

A story in today’s NYT depicts the grim odyssey of SARS from bustling Hong Kong to the rural provinces of Inner Mongolia, courtesy of an Air China flight attendant. She passed it to her husband of 3 months, whom it killed, and to several other family members.

“We were told atypical pneumonia was finished in February,” Ms. Meng [the flight attendant] said through tears at the Hohhot Hospital, where she has mostly recovered. “I never imagined that this kind of tragedy would fall on me and my family.”

Out in the distant provinces, the article reveals, the local government is telling people that quack herbal remedies will cure the lethal disease. This is hardly surprising; I’ll bet you anything that those selling the “remedies” crossed the officials’ palms with some silver, and the endorsements followed. That’s just the way things work here. (We in American have no idea what real corruption is.)

This is an alarming development. At least in Beijing, HK, Singapore and Guandong Province there are facilities modern enough to offer a sterile environment and competent doctors. Not in the hinterlands, where conditions are often so primitve, the people so destitute, that there’s virtually no way the infected could hope to receive anything close to adequate treatment. It really could parallel the AIDS crisis here, which has so far been most devastating in the impoverished distant provinces.

More alarming still is another Times story on how SARS is becoming deadlier, with death rates doubling. I wondered last night as I watched CCTV what it meant when the announcer said that fewer SARS cases were being reported, but suddenly more of the infected were dying. The article explains:

The death rate from severe acute respiratory syndrome has more than doubled, to 5.6 percent, since the epidemic was first detected in mid-March, causing deep concern among health officials….The current 5.6 percent rate is much higher than that for the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which was less than 1 percent, Dr. Stöhr said. But influenza then killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide because it spread so quickly.

One theory for the rising SARS death rate is that the initial cases involved health care workers who were healthy 20-to-45-year-old adults and who had better access to health care than others. Then, as the infected health workers unintentionally spread the disease to family members and friends, and they, in turn, to others, SARS has infected an increasing number of older people with heart disease, diabetes and other chronic ailments.

This is scary stuff. The Times article also indirectly contradicts CCTV’s claim that the rate of infection is declining. The article says it is actually increasing. You decide for yourself which to believe….


Mr. Hu, Tear Down this Wall

Dear Leaders,

You are making bold if somewhat desperate attempts to win back your credibility and to convince the world that you are indeed a friend to your people. Yesterday’s groundbreaking press conference and the new wealth of coverage of SARS in all the (state-run) media show that you are at least trying to operate more transparently.

Since you are now encouraging free communications and honest dialogue, I urge you to look at the greatest roadblock to these noble goals — your custom-made Internet censorship mechanism, lovingly referred to as The Great Firewall of China. You cannot have it both ways. Either you are transparent and in favor of dialogue, or you are a frightened deer caught in the headlights, terrified of what your people see and think.

The blocked Internet is a glaring symptom and symbol of your fears. It reinforces the perception of you as paranoid ideologues. It reminds the world that your past eagerness to block communications (which, in the case of SARS, resulted only in more unnecessary deaths and unending streams of rumors) is alive and well, and thus you are still not to be trusted. Suppressing information and blocking dialogue indicates you still cannot be trusted.about SARS — knowing that you want to control what is told to the public, your own officials will be terrified to report honestly, lest you punish them for it, as you have been known to do in similar situations. They will only want to tell you what you want to hear. And more people will die.

I am a personal victim of your censorship, unable to read this very site, thanks to your terror of the exchange of information. How ironic, that if not for this terror, which you cling to fanatically, you would be less vulnerable to criticism. You set it all up yourself, and it is time to “unset” it. Mr. Hu, tear down this wall and allow more light into your nation. All you have to fear, as another great leader once said, is fear itself, and this fear will suffocate you if you do not let it go.

Thank you.

The Peking Duck
[edited, Apr. 21, 10:38 am China Time]


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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Chinese Government Hires New SARS Spokesperson

Big White Guy, I’m sorry but I couldn’t resist borrowing this — the photo and the caption — from you:

“Just look carefully, I only want you to look carefully. Do not repeat the lies of liars. Do not become like them. Once again, I blame the WHO for reporting before it ascertains what takes place. Please, make sure of what you say and do not play such a role.”

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Indispensable SARS article

More than any other article I have seen so far, this one backs up my own observations about the Chinese government’s contortions over the past weeks, from idiotic, bold-faced lies (“there’s never been a better time to visit Guandong, and tourists are arriving in record numbers!”) to stern warnings to tell the truth about SARS. It’s a great piece. Excerpt:

China’s top leaders, seeking to quell an international uproar over the honesty of their medical reports on a deadly respiratory virus, have issued their strongest warning yet about severe acute respiratory syndrome and have explicitly cautioned officials not to cover up its spread. ….The top leaders called the spread of the new disease a serious threat to “China’s reform, development and stability” and said that party and government leaders around the country “will be held accountable for the overall situation in their jurisdictions.”

….In a sign that old ways in this secretive system die hard, the Chinese media still have not been allowed to mention the scathing findings of a World Health Organization team.

….One motive for Beijing’s prevarication, diplomats and doctors here speculate, was to avoid the placement of Beijing, the capital city, on the World Health Organization’s travel advisory list, which now recommends against “nonessential travel” to Guangdong or Hong Kong.

But the tactic appears to have backfired, with official credibility demolished and rumors gone rampant.

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Sarswatch is doing an extraordinary

Sarswatch is doing an extraordinary job of filtering and collecting the latest information on the disease, chronicling the story as it unfolds worldwide. Especially noteworthy and disturbing was its coverage yesterday of yet another story from Time Asia. Needless to say, the government here is blocking access to the article, doubtless for our own well being, but Sarswatch gives us the entire thing with an informative preface:

Time Asia is reporting that earlier this week, Hospitals in the Chinese capital hid SARS patients from international health officials. In an amazing story, Time details how patients were moved to other hospitals, moved to hotels, and even driven around Beijing in ambulances, all to avoid the WHO inspection team. They are also reporting that internal memos say there have been 100 new cases of SARS in Beijing in the past 10 days, even as the official count remains at 37

Is everyone getting this? Read that snippet again (I had to, because it’s hard to believe). Can you imagine the paranoia that would manifest such insanity? Read the whole article; it’s another eye-opener.

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Shocking column by Maureen Dowd

Shocking column by Maureen Dowd on Bush’s buddy who intends to Christianize Iraq. Here’s a taste:

Franklin Graham, the Christian evangelist who has branded Islam a “very wicked and evil” religion, was the honored speaker at the Pentagon’s Good Friday service. After Kenna West, a Christian singer, crooned, “There is one God and one faith,” Mr. Graham told an auditorium of soldiers in camouflage, civilian staffers and his son, a West Point cadet: “There’s no other way to God except through Christ. . . . Jesus Christ is alive because he is risen, and friends, he’s coming back, and I believe he’s coming back soon.”

….Muslims suspicious that America is on a crusade against Islam were inflamed to learn that Mr. Graham is taking his missionary act to Iraq. They are still scorched by his remarks to NBC News after 9/11: “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, and it wasn’t Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.”

It was exactly this thinking that led to the rounding up and interment of the American Japanese after Pearl Harbor, one of the sorriest moments in America’s history. How can Bush endorse such a person?


Another SARS Update Live from Beijing

I am packing up my stuff and preparing to leave Beijing so I can’t spend a lot of time writing. I wanted to clarify my post yesterday about universities closing. I am singing in an international chorus here, and one of the singers is a professor at Peking University (Beijing Daxue, or “Bei-Da”). He told me that rumors were flying last week about two professors dying of SARS and 20 students being infected as well. In truth, he said, he knew of one professor for sure who died of SARS and that he could say with a good amount of confidence that at least 10 students were infected. All classes have been cancelled. I realize this is “hearsay,” but you have to understand that in Beijing, which until a few days ago was insisting there were a total of only 27 SARS cases in the city, hearsay is all we have. (I won’t repeat rumors here until I think my source is a good one.) This same professor said that earlier this week it was announced to the students that they must be ready at any time to leave the school and go home. Two students of Bei-Da who are in the same chorus confirmed this.

Last night, a German businessman I know from work called and told me he came to Beijing all the way from Yunnan to give a lecture at a local university and that, to his shock, “the university is closed.” He said cities outside of Beijing have no idea how seriously SARS is affecting the nation’s capital. He said he was leaving right away for Yunnan, where there have been few if any cases of SARS reported.

These pieces of anecdotal evidence were the main reasons I posted that Beijing was “going crazy.” That, and the frenzied and very visible efforts to disinfect every surface in the city. I still think there’s a lot of over-reaction that could have been avoided had the government been forthright from the very beginning. (That will be the day.) Now, after the damage has been done, after weeks of telling us the disease was under control and tourism was rising, the central government is doing a complete about-face and talking nonstop about the “grave threat” of SARS and what it’s doing about it, threatening “severe punishment” to any officials caught covering up cases of SARS. (All I have to say is, Physician, heal thyself.)

This is a defining moment for China and it will be interesting to see where it all ends. All of that work over all of those years, all that propaganda about the new China, the more open society — so much of it was built on sand, and the SARS tidal wave washed it away overnight. As someone who gives crisis management training to executives, I will forever refer to this as a classic case study in exactly what not to do in a crisis. No. 1 rule is acknowledge it, set up a system for sharing information, make yourself available and tell the truth. If you do not, it will catch up with you, always. The “new leadership” (which is as fossilized and plutocratic as those before them) gets an F minus in crisis management and, in the eyes of the world, will be sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap for a very long time to come.
[Edited, 4/20]


Beijing has gone utterly crazy.

Beijing has gone utterly crazy. All the universities are either closed or on the verge of closing. It’s a one-topic town. Unprecedented.

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