SARS in the Chinese Media

China: The War at Home

A Beijing girl wears a fashionable SARS mask.
Shanghai, China, April 21, 2003 (Photo: Liu Jin/AFP).

Hardly had the war in Iraq ended when Chinese media outlets found themselves swept up by a far less controversial and more immediate war at home: the battle against a new and lethal virus that has quickly reached epidemic proportions around the globe.

Called atypical pneumonia in China, the disease, defined by the World Health Organization in March as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), bumped Iraq off the front pages of Chinese newspapers shortly after the coalition forces occupied Baghdad.

Until early April, the epidemic, which originated in South China’s Guangdong Province in February and then spread to Beijing and several other provinces, was hardly mentioned in the Chinese media.

When the media silence on SARS was broken, the overwhelming tone was the official line that “the disease was already brought under effective control” and “Beijing remained as normal and safe as ever.”

The media’s apparent light-heartedness began to recede around April 9 when Wen Jiabao, China’s new prime minister, told the nation that the situation regarding SARS outbreak “is grave.” Even in the week following this admission, the toll of SARS infections and deaths released by the Ministry of Health and the Beijing municipal government were widely believed to be low.

The real turning point in Chinese media coverage came on April 20, following a press conference given by a new official from the Ministry of Health, Vice Minister Gao Qiang. The figures he released at the press conference showed that Beijing had 346 confirmed SARS cases with 18 deaths, instead of 37 cases with and four deaths, as previously reported. From that day on, the Ministry of Health has released the national SARS statistics daily to the public.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong were stripped of their party posts allegedly for failing to handle the war against the fatal disease properly. The municipal people’s congress of Beijing has accepted Meng’s resignation and appointed a new mayor.

Now the country’s print and electronic media have devoted much more space or airtime to the battle against the new killer, which as of April 22 had claimed 102 lives in China and had infected 2,317 people.

Aside from the grim daily statistics, the coverage has ranged from news items on governmental and grassroots efforts to contain the spread of the disease in various parts of China, to reports on the medical research into the nature of the virus and the hunt for a vaccine. Stories of heroic medical workers saving lives have also become a common news item in the Chinese print and broadcast media. Talk shows and newspaper features focus on how to prevent the disease.

For instance, the April 21 edition of Beijing Daily (government-owned) devoted an entire page to methods for disinfecting the home, the importance of wearing a surgical mask, and suggested prescriptions for preventing SARS. On April 23, Beijing Evening News, a popular tabloid-size newspaper in China’s capital with a circulation of nearly 2 million, devoted six of the16 pages in its first section to the war against SARS. One of the stories featured the experience of a nurse from a local hospital who has just recovered from the disease. The same day’s Wen Hui Bao, a Shanghai-based newspaper popular among intellectuals, gave five of its 12 pages over to coverage of SARS.

Beijing Public Radio has launched a four-hour special daily program on the “People’s War Against SARS” and Beijing TV’s Channel 3 is airing a nightly, 150-minute program allowing viewers to call medical experts with their questions about SARS. While keeping the public informed of the spread of the disease, the Chinese media have also tried to convey a message that, though fatal, the disease is not insurmountable.

On April 23, under the headline “Facing SARS: Let Me See You Smile,” Beijing’s government-owned Xinhua News Agency commented, “Government officials seem to have forgotten how to smile when faced with SARS.…Smiling does not mean you’re ignoring the problem, nor does it mean that you’re attempting to disguise the facts. It is a signal we should extend to the public: In the struggle against SARS, we are confident.”

The front page of the April 23 edition of Beijing’s government-owned People’s Daily featured the headline: “It is good to have SARS figures released daily.” In the accompanying article, Liu Chengyin commented that “to the broad masses of people, accurate and timely information is also a good way to mobilize them to be more conscious of the disease. Panic stops when the public is fully informed.”

But according to other reports in the Chinese press, the panic had not yet stopped. A commentary in the April 25 edition of the government-owned Beijing Youth Daily urged people not to engage in “scare shopping,” since this the supply of daily necessities in Beijing is adequate. The author further advised people to have behave rationally and have greater confidence in the local government.

Not all publications were as forgiving of the government's initial response to SARS. After the mayor of Beijing was fired, the Communist Party's China Youth Daily railed that the government had “acted foolishly.” The Chinese government “not only untruthfully informed the international community on the state of the disaster, but also refused international assistance....This way of dealing with problems and the public may look smart, but actually shows a lack of political confidence and even a weak mentality.”