SARS Ten Years Later

Incredibly enough, it’s now nearly ten years since SARS became an international crisis and turned much of China inside out. SARS affected my impressions of China more than any other issue and shaped the tone of this blog for years. Below are my recollections of this turbulent time.

Life and Death in Beijing in the Age of SARS

It was the winter of 2002 and I was having a difficult time in Beijing. I was wondering whether I wanted to live there at all. On my first night in my new apartment I lay down on the bed and it collapsed onto the floor with a crash. As it got colder my central heating only worked about half the time. Sometimes I slept in an overcoat. I had to send part of my salary back to the US to pay for my mortgage and soon learned the bank simply wouldn’t let me. The government wanted to keep all the renminbi in China. And I wasn’t quite prepared for the culture shock of rampant line-cutting, drivers who saw pedestrians as moving targets, questionable sanitation practices and worse.

I was eventually going to be enthralled with Beijing, but in the winter of 2002 all I felt was frustration, intensified by weather so brutally cold I could barely step outside. Everything was going wrong. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, my blog suddenly became inaccessible (along with all other Blogspot blogs; I could get in the back end to post, but I couldn’t see the blog.) I had started it several months earlier in Hong Kong and it had become an important part of my life, my one creative outlet. January marked the month that my blog posts became increasingly political. I was fed up with the censorship, the idiotically cheerful spin all stories received in the state-controlled media, the government’s obvious prevarications, the blatant propaganda that was always on the television. I let it all out on my blog. And now I couldn’t open it.

The day I first read about a strange new disease afflicting southern China there was record cold, and the wind sliced across my face as I walked from my apartment to the subway to work. It was mid-February of 2003. I had just taken off my heavy lambs-wool coat and turned on my PC when the story flashed across my screen: an unidentified disease was infecting people in Guangdong province. It was a respiratory infection and health workers had no idea what it was. More than 200 had been infected and five had died. It was a lead item on Yahoo News and there wasn’t much more information except that Chinese government officials were saying very little about it. No surprise there.

Southern China has long had a reputation of being a breadbasket for new diseases, in particular different strains of flu. As news of the infection spread over the weeks to come, some would hypothesize it was caused by people living in close proximity to animals. At Guangzhou’s notorious animal markets wild game and dogs and pigs are jammed into cages adjacent to one another. I had seen a news report about these markets and wondered how people could work amid such squalor. The report, on CNN, showed a young boy, maybe nine years old, wearing shorts and flip-flops, squatting in the slime that covered the floor. Who knew what kind of virus might mutate and spread from one animal to another, and finally to the men working the cages or to shoppers? No matter how it started, it appeared that once again the region had spawned an insidious new pathogen.

The story on my screen said the illness had started infecting people in November of 2002, and immediately I felt my blood pressure rise a notch. Nearly four months, and only now were we hearing of a potentially lethal situation. People’s lives were at stake and the government had been sitting on its hands. It brought up all my issues with how the Communist party operated, of how China’s leaders’ obsession with harmony trumped its concerns for its own people. Bad news was automatically repressed. The government always had to look good. (more…)


The Last Hero of Tiananmen

Philip Pan, for years my favorite correspondent in Beijing (he left a few months ago), has written a devastating article about a letter written by a doctor who saw with his own eyes the victims of the massacre on the streets of Beijing n June 4, 1989 and described in detail the carnage he witnessed in the emergency room that night. [Correction – this is not actually an article but an excerpt of Pan’s new book Out of Mao’s Shadow that I’ve been trying to buy.]

On page after page, over a period of months, Jiang poured his heart into the letter. Every spring, as the anniversary of the massacre approached, the party became nervous and mobilized to prevent any attempt to memorialize the victims. But people had not forgotten, Jiang wrote. They had been bullied into silence, but, with each passing year, their anger and frustration grew. Jiang urged the new leaders to take a new approach. They should admit the party was wrong to send troops into the square and order them to fire on unarmed civilians. They should address the pain of those who lost their loved ones in the massacre and acknowledge, at long last, that the protesters were not “thugs” or “counter-revolutionaries” but patriots calling for a better and more honest government..

As Pan explains, this is no ordinary whistleblower, but one with unique credibility – none other than Jiang Yanyong, the very same doctor who wrote the letter to Time magazine in 2003 blowing the lid off the SARS cover-up. Needless to say, for his efforts to save lives he was “eased into retirement,” and later harassed and detained.

“Haunting” was the word that kept coming to mind as I read the final paragraphs of this beautiful story.

The government never charged Jiang with a crime, and he was finally released from house arrest in March 2005. Afterward, though, he disappeared from public view. When I last visited him, he turned up the volume on his television set because he believed his apartment might be bugged, and he whispered that he was trying to avoid provoking the government. He said he still wanted to visit his daughter and grandson in California, and he believed that, if he behaved, the authorities would give him permission to go. As I listened to him speak, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment. The state had been unable to break Jiang, but it had succeeded in silencing him.

After I left his apartment, though, I decided it was unfair to expect the elderly doctor to continue standing up to the party. He had already achieved more than most and paid a price for it. I doubted the government would ever let him visit his daughter and grandson, but how could anyone expect him to give up that hope? There was only so much one man could do, and only so much a nation could ask of him.

There’s much more to this story; I never realized how difficult a life the SARS whistleblower had endured, and how he retained his integrity even through the horrors of the Mao years, and remained dedicated to his country (not the party) to the point of endangering his own safety. It is inspiring, and ultimately very sad. Please read the article, bookmark it and pass it to your friends.

When I read articles like this, I realize how important it is that traditional media don’t die out. There is nothing like great reporting, something Pan has consistently delivered, shocking us with the truths he uncovers and telling them in a dispassionate tone that nevertheless haunts us even years after reading them. The way this story haunts me even today.

John Pomfret set the bar high for Pan, his replacement, and I can’t imagine how the Post will ever find anyone who can fill Pan’s shoes. As good as they come.