April 28, 2003
SARS UPDATE: A friend in China sends a disquieting report, suggesting that things there are worse than I had realized:
Within the past week, it has finally become evident that the Chinese government’s failure to own up to the SARS problem when it began several months ago is coming back to haunt it, at the expense of many innocent people who had no idea that their government was (once again) lying to them. Although we have always known that we were visiting an authoritarian regime that lacks a free press, until this week, the police presence has been relatively low-key and the “news” in the China Daily has been a source of amusement to us. It is easy, in the capitalist mecca of Shanghai, to forget a key fact that the government here plainly wants you to forget but that is now quite clear: This is very much a police state. . . .
[Numerous anecdotes of coverups, "appearance-oriented" strategies, and so on follow. Example: a sick student showing up at a university clinic and being told "There is no SARS at the University. Do you want to be the first case?" after which he went home without treatment. Shanghai is reortedly quarantining anyone who enters the city from anywhere else.]
But for the facts that it is rapidly heading toward martial law and is infected with a contagious and potentially lethal disease, Shanghai is a fantastic city. . . . China is a growing world power with enormous political, military, and economic importance. But it will not be a full-fledged member of the world community until it meets its responsibilities to other countries and to its own people.
The report suggests that things are much worse elsewhere in China, particularly in Beijing and Guangzhou. I should note that my friend was until recently very optimistic about China, and very favorably disposed toward the direction that its government is taking. I suspect that the damage done to China’s reputation may, in some ways, do as much harm as the disease itself. China will have to work very hard to get out of this hole.