Virus forces Chinese openness

Wednesday, China released figures showing a slowing of SARS cases in a high- risk province.

The Rolling Stones were supposed to play here tomorrow. Now that's off. The World Economic Forum in Geneva just said 'no' to an Asian summit scheduled here in two weeks. Even the women's world ice hockey championship won't take place in Beijing this weekend, its organizers now say.

No, China's capital doesn't seem - at least so far - to be facing a major outbreak of so-called "severe acute respiratory syndrome," or SARS. The bulk of cases - 1,190 according to the government - still appear to be in Hong Kong and the southern province of Guangdong. Another 620 cases have been diagnosed in 15 countries, evidently from travelers who were in Asia. At least 78 people have died from SARS worldwide, though most people diagnosed have been treated and released from hospitals.

But so obtusely has the SARS issue been handled by mainland Chinese officialdom that overseas groups and foreign businesses have started reacting to what they don't know and weren't being told.

Officials here admitted in February to an epidemic that began in Guangdong in November. But until Wednesday - and despite promises to the contrary - China had not reported on the spread of mainland SARS cases in March, insisting that the disease is "under control," and that foreign travelers can safely come to China. As foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Wednesday, "If you want to come to China for business trips - it is safe.... There is no coverup."

China has long been loath to present unvarnished reports of domestic problems, including labor strikes, unsafe working conditions, and even natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. Yet the SARS question has presented a public relations problem, since it involves a communicable disease that travels beyond borders.

"Whether this is bureaucratic ineptitude or official obfuscation isn't clear," says one Western analyst of the official reluctance to raise the SARS issue. "Either way, the Asian region and the world is putting the Chinese on notice."

Wednesday, after two weeks of criticism in the international press, and after an increase of canceled visits to Beijing, China released figures for March that indicate a slowing of cases in Guangdong.

Also, a World Health Organization (WHO) team has apparently secured permission to visit Guangdong on a fact-finding mission. The team has been waiting in Beijing for more than a week. Figures for Beijing have been reported as 12 cases and three deaths, but medical sources report to the Monitor that the actual figure in the city is somewhat higher.

"The Chinese haven't given us much information, and what we've gotten is old, and it is a little hard to believe," says an employee of a Western firm in Beijing. "So we aren't sure whether this is really bad, or not. We have no cases, and no one knows of any cases. But we don't know who to talk to. The Health Ministry isn't reassuring."

Employees at some companies like Nokia in Beijing were issued cloth masks this week, and nonessential US diplomats in southern China posts were allowed to leave. Sun Microsystems in California has canceled a delegation to the mainland, and reports from Malaysia and South Korea suggest that businesspeople from those countries will not attend an annual Guangdong trade fair this month, one of the biggest in China.

Moreover, unlike the Hong Kong media, whose pages and airwaves have been loaded with coverage of SARS, the official state media in China in past weeks has barely mentioned the subject.

Two of the biggest papers, Beijing Youth Daily and People's Daily, have run four items between them in the past week, and two were about cases outside China. SARS has not been reported on China's main TV news channel.

One Chinese official told reporters in a lunch meeting that frightening coverage of a disease like SARS is a problem in a country that has long eschewed graphic coverage of negative news. Indeed, sources point out that ordinary Chinese have long known that when an issue makes it into the official news cycle, it is important.

Chinese officials say this is one reason why they have not wanted to report on SARS with anything like the drama of the Hong Kong or Singapore media. They have not wanted to create fear and disorderly panic among ordinary Chinese in a country of 1.3 billion people.

In contrast with China's slow approach to dealing with SARS, Singapore and Hong Kong have gone to great lengths to publicize and quarantine cases. In Hong Kong on Monday, a 35-story apartment building with a growing number of reported cases was evacuated, and the residents were sent to an isolated rural setting.

And Singapore, with the third-highest number of cases behind Hong Kong and China, instituted new health rules this week in which nurses meet passengers arriving on flights designated as high-risk. They have stopped 12 people, but sent only three to the hospital, which gave them a clean bill of health.

WHO officials argue that responsible reporting of public-health questions allows preventative measures to be taken, and also counters a lack of confidence and fearful rumor-mongering when public health reports are not forthcoming.

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