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From the July 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 7)

China: SARS and the Politics of Silence

How to Test the Truth of Speeches

Wu Guoguang, Hsin Pao (independent), Hong Kong, China, April 29, 2003

A Hong Kong woman protests the Chinese government's response to SARS
A Chinese Australian woman in Sydney protests the Chinese government's response to SARS, June 1, 2003 (Photo: Torsten Blackwood/AFP).
The calamity of atypical pneumonia has been caused by the Chinese government’s habit of telling lies. Zhang Wenkang, the minister of health who just stepped down, is the latest representative of this kind of liar. He was a professional doctor and a venerable elder of about 60, held a high position, and spoke with great sincerity. (A typical example of how he spoke is: “I can tell all of you here responsibly that China is a safe place.”) He was a perfect gentleman. Nevertheless, he turned out to be an out-and-out hypocrite. Those cheated by him thanked him, and he never blushed while telling lies. I think he was wronged when he was asked to step down, because he is the typical product of China’s politics today.

But although he represents liars, his stepping down does not mean China’s politics is bidding farewell to lies.

Let us look at it this way. As China has grown stronger, its international influence has also greatly extended. In the past, lies did harm only to the Chinese. Those who were killed as a result of lies did not know what actually happened. At present, a single lie told by China will throw the whole world into a panic, as if the world is faced with a formidable enemy.

In the past, lies were told every day, but at present, lies are told every other day. Can this be considered tremendous progress? In real life, everyone knows the simple truth that one lie is just as good as many. Anyone who is willing to cooperate with someone who has lied to him does so either because he is accustomed to maltreatment or because he has ulterior motives for doing so.

Will the Chinese government have a chance to repent and make a fresh start? How can it restore its reputation? This will not be difficult. China need not repeatedly say, “What I say this time is true.” Nor is it necessary to invite an international organization, for example, WHO, to confirm and approve what it says. The first way would involve making empty promises that no one would listen to. The second way might work for a time, but it is impossible to ask foreigners to pass judgment on everything China does. Instead, we should focus within China, at the lower levels; we should face ordinary Chinese people, and do something solid for them.

What should be done is quite easy and involves no cost. Just allow Chinese doctors to speak freely to the media, including foreign media. If retired Dr. Jiang Yanyong of the General Hospital of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had not told the foreign media about the epidemic, perhaps the whole world would still be in the dark and the epidemic in Beijing would have become irremediable.

It has been reported that [President] Hu Jintao and [Premier] Wen Jiabao did not make the decision to cover up the epidemic. This means that had the epidemic not leaked out, Hu and Wen would not have understood that the situation was so serious, and, consequently, no action would have been taken to prevent its deterioration. The “calamity of mankind” as Hu Jintao described it would not have been brought under control.

Regardless of how eager Hu and Wen had been to serve the people, without the help of Jiang Yanyong they would have been strangled by politics and would not have understood the true situation at all. Had things developed that way, atypical pneumonia would have spread across the country and even around the world. In such a case, no matter the good intentions Hu and Wen might have had, they would stand condemned through the ages and might even be held responsible for large-scale destruction of mankind.

As far as this is concerned, Dr. Jiang, who is in his 70s, has saved Hu and Wen, saved China, and saved mankind! However, this retired old man, who
is worthy of the name “China’s conscience,” is now forbidden to meet
foreign journalists and has been criticized in a circular issued by the PLA simply because he has done something of boundless beneficence. He is also under the surveillance of the national security departments.

If Hu and Wen want to enjoy the trust of the people and if the Chinese government wants to enjoy the trust of the world, they should immediately change the way they are treating Dr. Jiang. If Hu or Wen says openly: “Dr. Jiang Yanyong is a responsible good citizen and we would like to thank him on behalf of the people,” the trustworthiness of any statement made by the Chinese government would immediately increase by a big margin.

However, what we are seeing is that the propaganda department of China’s Communist Party is still issuing instructions strictly forbidding medical workers to provide the media, especially the foreign media, information about the spread of atypical pneumonia. Why is the government afraid of professionals speaking freely if it has told the truth?

Starting today, it is necessary to return basic rights to Chinese citizens, as stipulated in the constitution! No more nonsense about the so-called news reform or freedom of speech.

The deaths of ordinary people are imminent. If you let doctors speak, they will help you prevent officials at various levels from making false reports or hiding facts, help you know what is really happening, and help you triumph over the epidemic and eliminate threats whose sources are unknown. You will gain everything and lose nothing. Why do you not do this since it will benefit generation after generation of people?

While answering foreign reporters’ questions on figures related to atypical pneumonia, the newly appointed executive vice-minister of health helplessly made this remark: “You have no reason not to believe me. What should I do before you believe?” I think the answer is already very clear: “Practice is the criterion for testing truth.”

Twenty-five years ago, China entered into a new era of reform. This article has put forward criteria for testing truth in speeches to see whether or not the Chinese leaders will honor the promise they made of “administering state affairs for the people.” If they fail to do a little thing like this, it will not matter if 100 Zhang Wenkangs are dismissed or even if Jiang Zemin is also dismissed, for their successors will simply be new Jiang Zemins and new Zhang Wenkangs.

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