Communist China’s long obsession with secrecy is one cause of the present SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis. This passion for secrets—protected by lies—can involve events more than forty years ago, and it is heightened by a conviction common to all Communist countries: any disaster, natural or man-made, can reflect badly on the Party, the government, officials, and of course all citizens. Low-ranking officials who cannot conceal secrets will not rise through the hierarchy, and the highest officials hesitate before telling some or all of the truth.
China’s law on informing the public about disease is plain. According to a law jointly promulgated on January 23, 1996, by the Ministry of Public Health and the State Bureau for the Protection of State Secrets, “highest level infectious diseases” are classified as “highly secret.” This secrecy extends from the first occurrence of the disease until the day it is announced.
This is why throughout the spring most Chinese Web sites and forums that referred to SARS were usually blocked, although rumors circulated about the disease and its rapid spread. China’s minister of health, Zhang Wenkang, and Beijing’s mayor, Meng Xuenong (among many others), assured the public that there was no danger and that SARS was under government control. Both officials have recently been removed from office and the regime now says it is giving out accurate information about the disease. (As of April 30, according to the World Health Organization, there had been 3,460 cases in China, with 159 deaths, while 1,332 people recovered.) A Shanghai doctor, an expert on epidemic diseases, expressed a view familiar in official circles when he said, “You foreigners value each person’s life more than we do because you have fewer people in your countries. Our primary concern is social stability, and if a few people’s deaths are kept secret, it’s worth it to keep things stable.”
How did secrecy lead to the spread of the disease? According to John Pomfret, the experienced China correspondent of The Washington Post,
In the southern Chinese province of Guangdong [where SARS first appeared], the health department received a “top secret” document from a government health committee on Jan. 27 that contained disturbing information about a new pneumonia-like illness spreading in the region.
Instead of declaring a health emergency, Pomfret’s medical informants told him, no action was taken
because there was no one with sufficient security clearance [because epidemics are a national secret] to open it…. [Eventually] a bulletin was sent to hospitals across the province. But few health care workers were alerted because most were on vacation for the Chinese New Year….
In the meantime, the illness, known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, was infecting hundreds of patients, moving throughout China and spreading to Hong Kong and 16 other countries. Chinese officials waited more than three months to acknowledge the extent of the illness….
The results of this secrecy for international inspection were devastating. Hospital staff …