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SARS & freedom of press
Hu Ping
4/29/2003



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SARS has exploded in China and we are deeply concerned. While we are paying respect to those medical staff, particularly those who have given up their lives for the victims, we must also make a special mention of Dr. Jiang Yanyong whose courageous disclosure of the truth has exposed Beijing’s deception and lies. Without Dr. Jiang’s disclosure, Chinese leaders such as Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao might be still deceived (if they were at all) and the preventive measures against this deadly epidemic would still be delayed.

SARS is of a natural disaster, and a man-made one as well. If the Chinese authorities had not sealed the news for long, how could the situation become so deteriorated? Recently, the Communist party headed by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is beginning to correct its earlier mistakes as well as adopting some corrective and preventive measures—this should be recognized. But we must point out that such a change of attitude is inseparable from the international pressure. If SARS has not infected people in Hong Kong and from other countries, or if it were not for freedom of press and criticisms from overseas, or if there were no pressure from foreign governments and international organizations, or if SARS only became rampant within Mainland China and its victims were only Chinese, would Beijing make any effort to correct its mistake and pay such an amount of attention? Wouldn’t Beijing have continued its usual censorship as before, window-dressing its prosperity and ignoring the wellbeing of the common people? Even if some within the higher authorities wish to alter such practice, could they have overcome the internal resistance without bloodshed or suffering setbacks? With these thoughts, one couldn’t help feeling chilled to the bones.

This SARS tragedy is no different from a warning from Heaven: it cautions a closed China to feel no longer self-content in an age of information revolution. China is not what it once was any more; freedom of press and expression must be permitted and now!

We are all clear that Beijing’s initial reaction in this SARS event was not ill job performance by a few bureaucrats; rather it reflects the operational logic of the political system itself. When government officials process information at hand, they usually put politics ahead. After all, an infectious disease is not the crime of “counter-revolution,” and the Communist officials might not intend to hide the fact instinctually. All they had to worry was to not affect the stability of society as well as the economy (certainly chance of their own promotions as well), and hence the censorship and lies to the public. It becomes secondary to these bureaucrats whether such doing will bring up the number of the infected population. In the eyes of such officials, a human life is only as meaningful as a figure in statistics. As long as the number is within a permissible scope, it is not important or merely inevitable for the sake of the greater need of stabilizing the society. In fact, Beijing has always done so whenever natural disasters occurred over the years, and the regime has been always quite “successful” until this time. Beijing didn’t expect that SARS has become so explosive and deadly because it is now exported throughout the world—very difficult to cover up and control. The issue at stake is that since those in power are not voted into office, they would continue their usual way of handling matters—monopolizing the news and information. It cannot be anticipated that their way of doing things can be effectively changed without a change in this bureaucratic system.

We have witnessed the terrorist attack of “9.11” and the remarkable performance from the American public in this crisis. History has shown that only those governments, which permit criticisms from their people are able to obtain greater volunteer support from their people. Only by living in an open society, are people able to resist lies and rumors, staying calm without chaos. Those who live in total freedoms are the most self-disciplined, rational, benevolent, and cooperative individuals, not the otherwise.

Looking back, the Chinese people have paid an enormous, heavy price without the freedom of press. We have gone through too many of such disasters due to censorship and suppression of the truth. This SARS epidemic has brought great loss to the public, causing Beijing to damage its credibility and its international image. Once again, this globalized tragedy demonstrates the deadly defect of Beijing’s Communist system. Under such circumstance, what excuse would this Communist party have to refuse its political reform as well as the freedom of press? Perhaps, mankind will never be able to overcome natural disasters. But mankind should and can at least conquer man-made disasters. Ancient wisdom says, “When nature causes trouble, man still can survive; when man causes trouble, man cannot survive.” At present, we should not only try to overcome this natural disaster, but more important, we must be dedicated to conquering the man-made disaster. The current situation of Beijing’s censorship and control of press should no longer be tolerated by people at home and abroad.

* Hu Ping is editor of Beijing Spring magazine.

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