The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Following the SARS playbook, China keeps a dangerous tight leash on coronavirus information

A deadly coronavirus has sickened more than 4,565 in China as officials there fear a broad quarantine isn't enough to stem the virus. (Video: The Washington Post)

Almost 17 years ago, I flew from Beijing to Guangdong province in southern China to write about a fast-spreading disease called severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Interviewing doctors, government officials and journalists, I soon learned that the Communist authorities in Guangdong had known they had a serious health problem on their hands for months but still suppressed information about it because they did not want to scare off the millions of tourists who descend on southern China every Chinese New Year to spend reams of money.

Faced with a rampaging disease that the government was ignoring, residents in Guangzhou exchanged information via text messages on their mobile phones. Soon the authorities cracked down, accusing more than 100 people of rumor-mongering. In desperation, many turned to folk remedies to fight the disease. A special type of vinegar was rumored to kill the virus, so scores of people headed to the farms where it was produced in Shanxi province, 1,000 miles to the north. The virus followed them. When one of the afflicted from Shanxi traveled to Beijing, SARS exploded, infecting thousands.

In Beijing, the authorities clamped down on information, too. That spring, the Communist Party had scheduled its first leadership transition in 14 years — it was not convenient to report bad news. Beijing’s failure was made worse by the fact that the first SARS cases landed in the capital in a hospital run by the People’s Liberation Army, which operated then like a separate fiefdom. China’s generals declined to cooperate with government authorities and refused to hand over information, especially once the World Health Organization got involved.

Things began to change only when a scrappy newspaper in Guangdong, the Southern Metropolis Daily, defied government censors and contradicted the party’s claims that SARS was under control in Guangdong. A month later, a courageous army doctor reported that officials in Beijing were covering up the severity of the disease there, too. By the time the SARS virus ran its course by July 2003, more than 8,000 people worldwide had become sick, of whom 774 had died.

Now another coronavirus has emerged, and the parallels with SARS are striking. Like SARS, the new virus emerged from a live food market, although this time in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. As with SARS, the local authorities were slow to report the new disease because they did not want the news to interfere with Spring Festival celebrations and a major political meeting in Wuhan that ended on Jan. 15.

Just like 17 years ago, China’s police persecuted alleged rumor-mongers after the government claimed the disease was under control. The party began to move only when courageous people challenged the government’s narrative and demanded action, except this time they did it through social media and not through text messages.

Chinese journalist Jing Zhao, known as Michael Anti, surely hit a nerve on Twitter (which is blocked in China) when he wrote: “some local officials act as if appointed not to serve humanity but to serve the virus. They interrogate physicians who reveal the epidemic, lock up those who warn about it online, and unreasonably give big banquets as if their main mission were to optimize the virus’ spread.”

I remember when optimists, including some of my Western colleagues, claimed the SARS epidemic had taught the party a lesson that openness was the wave of the future. In reality, China has made a firm commitment in the past decade to controlling information all the more tightly.

Today there are no crusading newspapers left in China. The party has moved to place the nongovernmental-organization sector under its control. Social media is closely monitored, and people go to jail for trafficking in “rumors.” The foreign press is routinely harassed. When a group of Hong Kong journalists went to Wuhan last week to investigate the disease, police detained them and banned them from reporting.

At least I was allowed to work in Guangzhou in February 2003.

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