Bird Flu Fears: Should We Trust Beijing This Time?
ChinaFile A Conversation
A new strain of avian flu called H7N9 has infected at least seven humans and killed three in provinces near the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai, with the first death occurring on March 4. Meanwhile, in the last month, about 16,000 pigs, 1,000 ducks, and a few swans have been pulled dead from Chinese rivers. An April 2 World Health Organization (WHO) statement that scientists could find “no evidence of any connection” between the dead pigs and the human victims can no longer be found on its website.
Predicting whether infection will spread to the extremes required of the term “pandemic” is a fool’s errand. But there’s no question the H7N9 outbreak will test whether the administration of new president Xi Jinping is serious about its calls for greater transparency. The early evidence is encouraging; censors have allowed social media discussion of the disease to proceed, and state media is providing frequent updates. In fact, state-run CCTV’s report of nine infections is ahead of the WHO’s own recent estimates. On social network Sina Weibo—which YaleGlobal rightly calls China’s “virtual public square”—the top trending post is a list of common-sense tips for preventing the disease.
President Xi is surely using the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, as a case study. Precisely ten years ago today, teams of scientists from the WHO were traveling through mainland China to investigate early infections from SARS. Days later, I and the dozens of other Peace Corps Volunteers serving in China were told to vacate within 24 hours, taking the last available commercial flight from Chengdu to Washington, DC. Before I left my teaching post in Fuling, school leaders called the resident Volunteers to a quick meeting. They politely told us they disagreed with the Peace Corps’ decision to pull out; SARS, the dean said, had “been cured.” Ultimately, under then-President Hu Jintao, the government’s tight-lipped approach to the disease only fed panic and sowed long-term mistrust.
With the unprecedented openness that social media provides for China civil society, Xi can—and perhaps must–take a different path. But as Rachel Lu of Tea Leaf Nation recently wrote, the Chinese Web may yet prove “a double-edged sword.” Thus far, it has provided government with an interactive platform to both assuage and gauge citizen fears. But it also allows fear to spread along with information. And if watchful Web users perceive anything less than full transparency, they will pounce, and the blowback could undermine public safety and Xi’s early credibility at the same time.
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