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China: New Plague, Same Coverup?

By Bruce Einhorn Another winter, another virus, another coverup? Last year, much of Asia came to a standstill because of the SARS outbreak, which started in Southern China in the winter but didn't capture the world's attention for months because of successful efforts by provincial Chinese authorities to keep the virus a secret.

Now the worry is avian flu, which has hit many countries in Asia and killed over a dozen people so far. Most, if not all, of those victims were in direct contact with infected birds. Disease experts' main concern is that the virus will mutate and jump, not just from bird to person, but from person to person. If that happens, the experts say, the whole world could be in major trouble (see BW, 2/2/04, "Avian Flu: What You Need to Know").

MURKY ORIGINS. It's still not clear how and where Asia's new version of avian flu -- H5N1, as it's known -- got its start. But given China's track record, it's not surprising that some people in Hong Kong are looking at the mainland as the likely source -- and saying officials there may have again tried to cover up the extent of the problem.

According to The Standard, a Hong Kong daily newspaper, H5N1 struck two large chicken farms in the southern province of Guangdong last fall, killing about two-thirds of their birds. The Standard, picking up a report from its Chinese-language sister publication Eastweek, says farms throughout China have suffered from avian flu for several years, a fact that local authorities worked hard to conceal. (Disclosure: The Standard is now edited by Mark L. Clifford, formerly head of BusinessWeek's Hong Kong office.)

What did Chinese officials know about H5N1, and when did they know it? Good luck trying to find out. In China, no free press exists to ask these questions. And the country has no political opposition that can demand investigations. In many cases, that means the government gets a free ride.

FAMILIAR STORY. Things were supposed to be changing following last year's SARS outbreak. Back then, you'll recall, Chinese officials denied that a SARS problem existed in Guangdong despite widespread accounts of panic buying of vinegar (thought to prevent the virus' spread). When SARS made its way to Beijing in the spring, government officials again denied that a severe problem existed -- until the disease became so obvious that their spinning became Asia's answer to Comical Ali, Saddam Hussein's laughably deceptive Information Minister.

The near-ridicule forced President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to take action. They fired Beijing's mayor and the central government's Health Minister, and suddenly the Chinese media -- which had been conspicuously silent about the SARS outbreak -- started reporting at great length about the virus. Some optimistic outsiders heralded a new day for the Chinese media, believing that Hu and Wen had unleashed Chinese reporters and allowed them to tell the truth at last.

Such thinking always seemed a bit näive to me. Under its Communist Party rulers, China has a long history of government-authorized media campaigns, and the new reporting about SARS seemed to fit that model. For all of their supposed freedom to report about SARS, the Chinese media still had taboo subjects, such as the whistleblower who exposed to the Western press some of the coverups that had been going on at Beijing hospitals.

"PARTICULARLY SENSITIVE". Last week, with Hong Kong talking about a new coverup, I asked a top executive at a Chinese dot-com known for its news coverage what he thought about the domestic media's ability to report on sensitive subjects. Hurst Lin is the chief operating officer of Sina Corp. (SINA), one of China's three Nasdaq-listed Internet portals. A Taiwanese native who grew up in New York, Lin obtained an MBA from Stanford in 1993 and was one of the co-founders of the Silicon Valley dot-com that eventually became Sina.

The Web site is now known as one of China's best sources of news. Sina has 100 editors, mostly based in Beijing, who collect material for over 1,000 media outlets around China as well as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the U.S.

"The reporting on SARS," Lin says, "was particularly sensitive." When Beijing officials were still trying to cover up the problem by shipping SARS patients out of hospitals before World Health Organization officials could find them, Sina editors heard about what was going on, but didn't dare to report anything.

STARTING AT THE TOP. Then, following the sacking of Beijing's mayor and China's Health Minister, Sina started posting SARS news on its Web site. But "it was top down -- the government allowed us to do it," Lin says. When it comes to sensitive subjects like virus outbreaks, "We won't report it till we get the green light from the government."

China is changing, and its people today have more freedom to say things on the Internet than they've enjoyed at any point since the Communists took over. But limits are still imposed on what the media can report. And given China's reputation as a breeding ground for dangerous diseases, the media's inability to keep officials accountable is a problem not just for Chinese but for people worldwide. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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