Tuesday January 19th, 2021 11:17PM

Years after SARS, a more confident China faces a new virus

By The Associated Press
Related Articles
  Contact Editor

BEIJING (AP) — As a viral outbreak spread from the central Chinese city of Wuhan this week, the ruling Communist Party's central political and legal affairs commission issued a stern warning: “Whoever deliberately delays and conceals reports will forever be nailed to history's pillar of shame.”

The proclamation Tuesday signaled both China's growing confidence and its greater awareness of censorship's pitfalls.

The threat headlined an online essay that referred directly to SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, an epidemic that not only devastated parts of China but also exposed government deception.

Nearly two decades later, a more assertive China appears determined not to repeat its past mistakes.

“Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels must put people's lives and health first,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said Monday. “It is necessary to release epidemic information in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation.”

Under Xi, widely considered the country's most authoritarian leader in decades, China has adopted a more proactive public relations strategy, showing an ever greater determination to control the narrative by putting out large quantities of its own information — as opposed to trying to make an explosive issue disappear.

The outbreak, which has sickened more than 500 people and killed at least 17, is a major test of Xi's leadership as he seeks to grapple with challenges such as China's slowing economy, its trade war with the U.S., anti-government protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan's defiance, said Joseph Cheng, a political scholar in Hong Kong.

“This could help him save face,” Cheng said. “He knows the consequences to his leadership — to his reputation — if he fails on this front.”

Xi's comments Monday were his first public ones on the outbreak, and they seemed aimed at reassuring the Chinese public that there wasn't another SARS-level cover-up in the making.

For months in 2002 and 2003, even after SARS had spread around the world, China sought to conceal the number of actual cases by parking patients in hotels and obscure hospital wings, and even driving them around in ambulances to avoid detection by World Health Organization experts.

China in that era was just beginning to embrace the internet, and smartphones were years away. Beijing had yet to stage the 2008 Summer Olympics, and the country was just at the start of an economic boom that has since made its economy the second largest in the world.

At the time, people who revealed information about SARS that the government hadn't publicized could be accused of leaking state secrets. Media outlets were muzzled, leaving the public in the dark. It was only after a retired high-ranking physician spoke out that the true measure of authorities' concealment became known.

In many ways, China is a different country now: more prosperous and equipped with far more advanced resources and infrastructure. Though the Communist Party remains largely opaque and intolerant of any dissent, social media has made it much harder to contain news of accidents, outbreaks or other non-political events.

David Heymann, a doctor who headed WHO's global response to SARS in 2003, said Chinese authorities have become much more transparent since that outbreak and it appears the government began reporting cases of the new virus as soon as they were identified.

“I think it's working pretty well compared to what happened initially in SARS,” Heymann said.

With the discovery late last year of the new type of coronavirus, the same family of viruses that encompasses SARS, state agencies sprang into action with frequent public statements, TV appearances by government experts and colorful graphics urging citizens to wash their hands and wear masks.

“I'm not very panicked,” said Zhang Wei, a 27-year-old office clerk in Wuhan who went to a pharmacy to buy masks Wednesday afternoon.

“I think the government is quite organized and has attached great importance (to the virus)," Zhang said. "As long as we do as we're told in terms of protecting ourselves, there shouldn't be a big problem.”

Following initial reports of people becoming ill with an unrecognized type of pneumonia, authorities in Wuhan swiftly announced they were investigating a seafood market frequented by many in the first wave of patients. Chinese scientists rapidly identified the virus as a novel coronavirus, an action that WHO called a “notable achievement.”

"Once the Chinese leadership is on the alert and would like to engage in a national campaign to stop it, then the party apparatus is mobilized highly effectively,” Cheng said.

At a Wednesday news briefing, a reporter asked a National Health Commission official whether the government was hiding any information. The official, Xu Shuqiang, responded that they have been releasing up-to-date numbers from the start, and will continue to do so “until there is no more need for it.”

That hasn't stopped Chinese observers from expressing some skepticism about the official data. When the state numbers last week were still below 100 despite cases popping up overseas, users on the Twitter-like Weibo platform quipped that China was dealing with a “patriotic” virus that only infected people after they left the country. The virus should “join the Communist Party," they suggested.

Public awareness and interest have risen sharply since the number of reported cases soared Monday. In Wuhan, Beijing and Shanghai, many wore masks on the subway and in public areas. People shared articles on Weibo and WeChat that outlined measures for protecting oneself from the virus, and joked that Wuhan residents should remove themselves from online group chats, lest they infect fellow members.

Users commenting on a set of informational posters designed by the People's Daily, the party's official newspaper, cheered the country on in its fight against the outbreak.

“Let's go Wuhan, let's go people across the nation,” read one refrain. “Everyone work together to win this battle!”


Associated Press videojournalists Emily Wang and Dake Kang in Wuhan, China, and medical writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP National News, AP Online National News, Top General short headlines, AP World News, AP Business, AP Business - Economy
© Copyright 2021
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Years after SARS, a more confident China faces a new virus
Nearly two decades after the disastrously handled SARS epidemic, China’s more open response to a new virus signals its growing confidence and greater awareness of the pitfalls of censorship, even though the government remains as authoritarian as ever
7:25AM ( 2 minutes ago )
The Latest: Trump tries to keep focus on economy in Davos
President Donald Trump says U.S. economic growth is the buzz at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, but reporters are focused on the impeachment trial underway back in Washington
7:04AM ( 24 minutes ago )
The Latest: Federer into 3rd round to extend Aussie streak
Roger Federer extended his streak of reaching the third round at the Australian Open by beating Filip Krajinovic 6-1, 6-4, 6-1
6:54AM ( 33 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
Trump to hold news conference before leaving Davos forum
President Donald Trump says he'll hold a news conference before he leaves Switzerland to return to Washington and his impeachment trial in the Senate
6:24AM ( 1 hour ago )
Cases of new viral respiratory illness rise sharply in China
Chinese health authorities are urging people in the city of Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings after warning that a new viral illness infecting hundreds of people in the country and causing at least nine deaths could spread further
6:21AM ( 1 hour ago )
10 Things to Know for Today
Get ready for Wednesday, January 22nd with a few things to know about the day’s news from The Associated Press
6:20AM ( 1 hour ago )
AP National News
A #MeToo moment: Harvey Weinstein trial set to open
Opening statements and the first witness testimony are expected Wednesday in Harvey Weinstein’s New York City rape trial
1:05AM ( 6 hours ago )
Democrats swarm industrial Iowa to prove they can beat Trump
Democratic White House hopefuls are campaigning in the more than two dozen Iowa counties that went from supporting Barack Obama to Donald Trump in 2016
12:25AM ( 7 hours ago )
Science Says: What to know about the viral outbreak in China
Health authorities are closely watching an outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a new virus from China
12:24AM ( 7 hours ago )
Top General short headlines
The Latest: Official: France will delay the tech tax
A French government official says that France agreed to delay implementation of its tech tax until November as a gesture of goodwill ahead of Wednesday's discussions in exchange for an American promise to drop threats of new tariffs
6:17AM ( 1 hour ago )
China virus outbreak may wallop economy, financial markets
News that a new coronavirus that has afflicted hundreds of people in central China can spread between humans has rattled financial markets and raised concern it might wallop the economy just as it appears to be regaining momentum
6:14AM ( 1 hour ago )
The Latest: US Treasury chief: "No deadline" for China talks
U.S. Treasury chief Steven Mnuchin downplayed talk that trade discussions with China will be wrapped up by this November’s U.S. presidential election
6:09AM ( 1 hour ago )
AP Business
New government in crisis-hit Lebanon, but protests continue
A new Cabinet has been announced in crisis-hit Lebanon, breaking a months-long impasse amid mass protests against the country's ruling elite
9:50PM ( 9 hours ago )
US stocks close lower amid jitters over virus outbreak
Banks led a slide in U.S. stocks Tuesday as a virus outbreak in China rattled global markets, prompting investors to shift assets into bonds and defensive sector companies
8:54PM ( 10 hours ago )
At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census
A Yup'ik elder born to nomadic parents in western Alaska just after the start of the Great Depression has become the first person counted in the 2020 Census
8:34PM ( 10 hours ago )
AP Business - Economy
The Latest: Trump tries to keep focus on economy in Davos
President Donald Trump says U.S. economic growth is the buzz at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, but reporters are focused on the impeachment trial underway back in Washington
7:04AM ( 24 minutes ago )
The Latest: Federer into 3rd round to extend Aussie streak
Roger Federer extended his streak of reaching the third round at the Australian Open by beating Filip Krajinovic 6-1, 6-4, 6-1
6:54AM ( 33 minutes ago )
The Latest: EU chief: Trading partners must cut emissions
The European Union’s leader says the bloc’s move toward a climate neutral continent by 2050 will force its trading partners to put in extra effort if they want to do business with the bloc
6:39AM ( 49 minutes ago )
Awake? Senators struggle to stay focused on impeachment
Some senators are struggling to pay attention to President Donald Trump's impeachment trial
6:36AM ( 52 minutes ago )
Automaker Daimler sees full-year earnings sag by half
The maker of Mercedes-Benz luxury cars says its earnings fell by about half last year
6:31AM ( 56 minutes ago )