Swine flue deaths in China – are there any?

[Update: Welome, MIT BBS readers! Always glad to see you. Please note that comments are monitored – if you leave a comment, it may not show up for several hours Thanks.]

Below is an email I received today from a reader in Australia. I am neutral on the topic, at least for now, but quite curious. Maybe someone in the know can contradict or verify it. If its numbers are accurate, they raise some important questions.

I work in the health sector and I have been monitoring the rates of H1N1 pandemic influenza in Asia since the infection appeared in May. I have been puzzled by the odd disparity in cases and fatalities in China compared to the rest of Asia. Here’s why, based on my own figures compiled on reported deaths in each country:

H1N1 influenza deaths/population (millions) = deaths per million

India 212/1,148 = 0.18
South Korea 5/49 = 0.10
Hong Kong 13/7 = 1.85
Taiwan 11/22 = 0.5
Vietnam 6/86 = 0.07
Philippines 28\96 = 0.3
Thailand 153/65 = 2.3
Japan 20/127 = 0.15

China 0/1,330,044,544 = 0

See a pattern emerging here? Very rough figures, but most countries seem to have a H1N1 pandemic flu mortality rate in the range of 0.1-0.5 per million population. Based on these rates, we would expect China to have 100-650 H1N1 deaths by now, or around 200 deaths as seen in other countries in the region with a similar population, such as India. And yet China has reported no H1N1 deaths at all, except for one in a woman from Zhejiang who was said to have recovered from the flu.

There are several possibilities here.

1. Have China’s quarantine policies been successful?
2. Is there a H1N1 influenza virus with Chinese characteristics that is less virulent?
3. Do Chinese people have some special immunity or life-saving treatment for influenza that other Asians lack?
4. Is China not reporting its 200+ swine flu deaths – perhaps because of a desire to avoid bad news in the run up to the forthcoming October 1 Anniversary?

I am surprised that none of the medical experts at WHO has commented on China’s immunity to swine flu. I would have expected SARS veteran Dr Margaert Chan to be very interested in any country that managed to achieve a zero mortality from what she described as a possible calamity.

I would be interested in what your readers have to say, and whether anyone ‘on the ground’ in China has other information.

I did a quick search and noticed a dearth of coverage of any swine flu deaths in China. Zero, to be precise. I did find a blog that had been questioning this, only to be blocked in China for its efforts.

Yet Xinhua’s reports are almost always just body counts: how many people are reported ill in one country or another. (For decades, Chinese media have been happy to report on disasters outside China.) And while Xinhua’s reported over 9,000 H1N1 cases in China itself as of mid-September, it still claims no one has died from the disease. Hong Kong, meanwhile, has reported over twice as many cases and 13 deaths.

(Currently, it appears China is actively blocking my site — and my other blogs as well. And all I’ve done is express surprise, not disbelief, at the lack of deaths.)

I’ll remain neutral until I know for sure whether mainland China has really reported no deaths from H1N1. If that turns out to be accurate, I’ll lean toward No. 4 on the list above, which strikes me as most likely considering both the improbability of the other three possibilities, coupled with China’s past history of lying about not being totally upfront about disease on the mainland. Is there a 5th possibility?

Update: It’s apparently true that China has registered zero deaths from H1N1. Striking that – link referred to Beijing, not all of China.


Cheerleading on steroids

This is not the kind of link I would normally post (team sports are not my thing), but when I watched this video I was totally blown away. Let’s never mess with Korea.


Ayn Rand

In 1998, I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged back to back. I admit, I was intrigued. It sounded good, at least on first reading. The story of the titans, men of iron will and vision and ruthless compassion (never sentimental sympathy or pity or altruism), working against the cold, wicked establishment machine that rewards sloth and conformity and imitation. Howard Roark. Henry Reardon. (What’s up with the love of those initials?) So virile, so flawless, so committed to their ideals. Of such single purpose, and so perfectly disciplined.

At the same time, something struck me as being decidedly “off” about this scenario. (And it’s the exact same scenario in both books.) The characters are embarrassingly one-dimensional, right out of a comic book. They are good or bad. The one character who hovers and hesitates, never sure whether he should give in to the dark side or stand up for what he knows is right, Gail Wynans in The Fountainhead, ends up blowing his brains out. (He is the only character I can think of in the two books who isn’t either godlike or utterly despicable.) And the stories are inane, patently ridiculous, and yet they definitely hold your interest. There is something archetypal about them, absurd but archetypal, figures that are symbols: Leeching Bureaucrats, Hangers-on, Idealistic Achievers, Weak-kneed Corporate Yes Men, Genius Inventors (or Architects), etc. I admit, I was riveted. At the same time, I was sickened. What Rand glorifies above all else,of course, is money, which must be earned with no help from others. Altruism, any sense of charity are weaknesses, bad things. We have our right to it because we worked hard for it, and any talk of owing anything back to society is the work of venal, sluggish bureaucrats and lascivious, cynical celebrators of conformity (think Ellsworth Tooey in Fountainhead) plotting to sabotage men of hard work, to rob them and bleed them dry in the name of altruism.

Okay. As a believer in the social contract and the notion that we are all in this together, and as someone who knows from first-hand experience that giving to others, contributing to them and helping them succeed are, above all else, the things that make life truly meaningful and great – as this kind of person, I knew fairly quickly that Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” was anathema to my nature. And ironically, those who choose her as their guiding light, those who swallow her simplistic snow job of rugged individualism, the power of the will, the joys of not caring about or even considering others as we strive to attain our goals – these people nearly always struck me as social misfits, fanatics and, well, kind of creepy. (A lot of engineers I knew in Silicon Valley were Randian purists who met all these criteria.) They include, of course, the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, whose primary message is that “they” – those who are not Randian uebermenschen – want to take away what is rightfully “ours,” and that giving is a sign of weakness, and that we must engage in a constant struggle against the leeches, the Ellsworth Tooeys.

Which is all just a run-up to an article I read today, a superb review by the talented Jonathan Chait of some new biographies of Ayn Rand that helped me better understand just how vile and fraught with hypocrisy her “Objectivism” is. It is wonderfully relevant to the current political climate. It is wonderful reading, not just for insights into Rand’s intellectual dishonesty but into the current right-wing hysteria over healthcare. Just a brief snip (and this is kind of random – it’s all great reading):

For conservatives, the causal connection between virtue and success is not merely ideological, it is also deeply personal. It forms the basis of their admiration of themselves. If you ask a rich person whether he ascribes his success to good fortune or his own merit, the answer will probably tell you whether that person inhabits the economic left or the economic right. Rand held up her own meteoric rise from penniless immigrant to wealthy author as a case study of the individualist ethos. “No one helped me,” she wrote, “nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.”

But this was false. Rand spent her first months in this country subsisting on loans from relatives in Chicago, which she promised to repay lavishly when she struck it rich. (She reneged, never speaking to her Chicago family again.)….

The final feature of Randian thought that has come to dominate the right is its apocalyptic thinking about redistribution. Rand taught hysteria. The expressions of terror at the “confiscation” and “looting” of wealth, and the loose talk of the rich going on strike, stands in sharp contrast to the decidedly non-Bolshevik measures that they claim to describe. The reality of the contemporary United States is that, even as income inequality has exploded, the average tax rate paid by the top 1 percent has fallen by about one-third over the last twenty-five years. Again: it has fallen. The rich have gotten unimaginably richer, and at the same time their tax burden has dropped significantly. And yet conservatives routinely describe this state of affairs as intolerably oppressive to the rich. Since the share of the national income accruing to the rich has grown faster than their average tax rate has shrunk, they have paid an ever-rising share of the federal tax burden. This is the fact that so vexes the right.

One reality-based blogger who read the same review remarks:

Jonathan Chait reviews two (!) biographies of Ayn Rand, an astoundingly muddled thinker who was, apparently, also an astoundingly unpleasant human being. She’s worth studying, as any pathological phenomenon is worth studying, and her thinking (if it can be called that) still has influence over part of the Right; her very shallowness has a deep appeal for adolescent males of all ages and both sexes.

What’s most astounding is how completely unoriginal it is. A college friend showed me some Randite document just after I’d finished reading Also Sprach Zarathustra for a course.

At once I saw the relationship: Rand is Nietzsche for stupid people

Another says of the review:

It’s great and I don’t have much to say about it. One thing that does always strike me about Rand, however, is that there strikes me as something particularly odd about the Randian tendency to assume that the business executive class generally constitutes the most intelligent segment of society. As if an Albert Einstein is just a kind of middleweight hack but the VP for Marketing at Federal Express is one of ubermenschen.

If you want to understand the America of Beck-Limbaugh, this is absolutely essential reading. Ayn Rand is a uniquely American phenomenon, and unfortunately, whoever wants to understand present-day America must first know Ayn Rand.



China’s migrant workers hit by economic meltdown

An excellent multimedia look at how they are surviving, and the difficult future tens of millions face as they trudge back to their villages unable to find work. As I read the articles and listened to the testimonies, I was reminded how the slightest nudge of inflation means a life-altering calamity for these people. And I think of where it seems we are heading, and I wonder what these people will do if prices soar (as I think they will). Can the state possibly summon the resources to shelter the hundreds of millions living on pennies a day?

The section on migrant workers who’ve lost their jobs making the one-way trip home by train struck closest to home, from the opening soundbite of someone clearing his throat in the bathroom to the quiet, resigned conversations of people who know their options, limited to begin with, are shrinking even further. And still, they laugh and smile and move on. (At the risk of succumbing to a bout of sentimentality, I have to say, this piece reminded me how much I miss everything about China and want to go back, if only to visit, as soon as I can.)


China: All that glitters…?

My friend Dror has put up an interesting post on Thomas Friedman’s controversial column that I wrote about yesterday. Dror fears that many of us, dazzled by gushing reports of China’s success a la Friedman, will get a distorted picture of a country that’s not really doing quite as spectacularly as Friedman would have us believe.

As Ian Buruma points out in a recent article, ‘China’s economic success is convincing too many leaders that citizens… want to be treated like children’. This ideological shift is already showing itself in the calls for increased government planning in the US, as well as the shift of geopolitical power towards China. Taiwan, for example, recently announced that it will not apply for a UN seat this year, for the first time in 17 years. We can expect to see more and more political and ideological deferral to Chinese interests as we progress deeper into the crisis.

All this has happened before. In 1929, American pundits were mourning the failure of capitalism and listing the achievements of central planning in other countries. Back then, commentators were impressed by the Soviet Union’s high employment rate, and its incredible environmental and infrastructure initiatives. These included the Dnieprostroy hydroelectric plant (the largest of its kind in Europe), the 950 mile Siberian-Turkestan railway, and the Volga-Don water canal. Other achievements of that period included Nazi Germany’s 100% employment rate, Hitler’s autobahn (highway) projects, and Fascist Italy’s train system and efficient cooperation between government and business.

(Go to Dror’s post for the many links he incudes to back up is argument.)

Dror and I have had an ongoing argument for months about how strong China’s economy actually is, and how it stands up to America’s. I tend to think China is in better shape than he does. If you are watching its behind the scenes maneuverings, like shoring up its natural resources by cutting deals with Iran, Iraq and African countries, or its nearly silent investment in gold, you can’t help but see that they do have a blueprint for wielding the kind of global influence that for decades we imagined only the US could. China and the US are both pulling out of their recessions, but the US is going to get pulverized by the next wave of home foreclosures and the ticking time bomb of CDOs, all of which must (not might) pull down the dollar and weaken our financial system. China, while faced with its own staggering problems, is relatively unaffected by America’s mess, especially as it quietly moves away from the dollar.

China’s economy is so fragile, making predictions about it is dicey at best. I do think it’s safe to say that its global influence will continue to expand as America’s contracts, and it will be increasingly better poised than we are to cut deals, win friends and influence people. And yes, I know the huge problems China faces. But it’s faced many of these problems for the past 30 years (and some for far longer) and has continued to move ahead, or at least to plod along. And China has what we don’t – money in the bank. And nothing else talks like money. Maybe they will screw it all up and go crashing down. But for now, I see them as having the upper hand. Which, considering how America’s fallen, doesn’t really say very much, but still….


September 11

I commented on twitter earlier today that it doesn’t feel like the eve of September 11th. For the past eight years, as the date approached, I would keep thinking about the tragedy, I would count the days to the anniversary, I was acutely aware that it was upon us. Now, rather suddenly, it feels like another day. Time heals all wounds and maybe it’s finally done so to America’s darkest day. The media chatter seems considerably more restrained than in past years, and the cable news networks gave it relatively little play tonight, Joe Wilson’s outcry dominating the news.

It’s feeling distant, and the anniversary has become routine. But still, tonight I did what I do every year at this time: I listened to the NPR news report of that day, and I stop and think about how the world changed, how everything changed, how America stood for one brief shining moment as the most magnificent country in the world, and how we quickly squandered all the good will that a sympathetic world bestowed us.

Three years ago I wrote about my reactions to the NPR report and why I listen to it each year:

Every year on this date I listen to the same long radio broadcast, which evokes the curiosity and unfathomability of what happened. (It’s been playing in the background in my office the past hour.) At first, no one can put their arms around it, and on the hourly news at 9 a.m. they go ahead reading about ordinary things going on, not willing to admit yet that the whole world had changed, and everything else they were announcing would soon seem utterly meaningless. (”Today Libby Dole is expected to announce she will run for the US senate…”) And then, as more and more information becomes available, the implications of the day become clearer. It’s an interesting thing to listen to, hearing the reporters trying to think through the unthinkable. Listen to the strain and exhaustion in their voices as they try to figure out which reports are true or not. It’s not dramatic or sensational, which is what makes this broadcast so good. Keeping sane at a moment of insanity….

Saying that the date has finally become routine doesn’t mean it’s forgotten, which it will never be. But no date, no matter how dark, can retain its original impact, and with each year it comes closer to being “just another day.” And still, I listen to the news report, and I relive the night in Hong Kong when my friend called me with the news, and remember my own confusion and sense of a whole new phase in history taking shape. At the same time, I realize that the intensity of earlier years, the anxiety, the fears that the anniversary would precipitate more attacks – all of that has subsided, and nearly disappeared. In many ways, it now feels, almost, like just another day. Maybe that’s good. There comes a time to get over any tragedy, no matter how agonizing. Not to forget or downgrade the gravity of that event, but to stand up and move on, and accept that tragedy is part of life for every society, even America.

If you never heard the NPR report, I strongly recommend it. Bob Edwards’ voice will be with you for a long time, if not forever, even as September 11 continues each year to become a day almost like any other. Almost.


China’s reasonably enlightened autocracy

Thomas Friedman, not my favorite columnist, compares China’s system of strong-man government to America’s clearly broken system in which corporate interests can easily sabotage the government’s efforts to improve the lives of its citizens over the long term.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Friedman’s got a point. It’s a shame that special interests in America can spend vast amounts of money to derail projects that would be to the benefit of most citizens, like national healthcare. And it’s wrong that our NIMBY mentality creates constant gridlock when it comes to important decisions. I wish, however, that he’d thrown in a line – even a parenthetical phrase (a little more complete than “despite its drawbacks”) – that would have given a broader and more accurate picture of today’s CCP. Namely, that that kind of authority comes only with a very heavy price, and that while the CCP may be “reasonably enlightened” about energy, natural resources and ensuring sustainability, these benefits are balanced, and sometimes far outweighed, by its knee-jerk self-protective tendencies, which put the party’s survival on the very top of its priority list, way above alternative energy, global warming and sustainability.

Lisa has put up a perceptive post about the recent ramping up of repression, and the link it includes sets off additional alarm bells, painting a picture of a party embroiled in infighting and power struggles, with the possible end result being an even higher level of repression for the sake of “harmony.” It even dares to entertain the notion that the CCP’s commitment to improving its people’s standard of living – central to its strategy of ensuring loyalty to a one-party system – might not last forever should conditions there continue to unravel as they are at the moment in Urumqi.

Lisa remarks:

A swing to repression is pretty predictable given the 60th National Day celebrations, but this latest crackdown still feels qualitatively different somehow. The harassment, detention and arrest of legal scholars like Xu Zhiyong seemed to signal a repudiation of even the most gradualist move toward establishing an effective legal and constitutional system to counterbalance one party rule (and I do believe that there are many members of the Party in question who support a genuine rule of law).

All of this is depressing and worrisome, and it makes me wonder if China is heading down a much bumpier road than a lot of believers in China’s Inevitable Rise are predicting.

Is it time to hit the panic button? I won’t go that far, but I will say it’s time to keep an eye open. That got driven home to me yesterday as I read, via ESWN, a story on the new censorship being imposed on China’s business magazine Caijing, where reporters were recently told “they wouldn’t be running any politically controversial stories — indefinitely.” This is a big step backwards. Caijing was always pointed to as epitomizing China’s new spirit of openness.

So back to Friedman. Praise China’s stunning successes in securing the natural resources it needs and for forcing the embrace of alternative energy. Praise its outlandish daring in standing up to the US financial mobocracy and for having the savvy to quietly put its money in places safer than US debt. But you, Tom, have a debt to your readers, too: you have to tell them that the price of an enlightened autocracy is always less representation, the law being carried out by whim, and a curtailment of freedoms that many of us would never sacrifice, no matter how wise and magnanimous our leaders may appear. And when you’re praising China’s great strides, don’t forget that at the same time, it’s still trapped in a straitjacket that’s at least partially of its own making): extreme environmental fragility, overwhelming poverty and an economy that’s far more tenuous than immediately meets the eye.