China recovers from SARS via media's patriotic song

BEIJING — BEIJING - Here are some of the facts about the SARS epidemic in China: China's government covered up the early spread of the disease, helping create a public health crisis and showing it was out of touch with the needs of its citizens.

But here are the facts as presented by the Chinese government: It was the central government that came to the rescue, cleaning up the mistakes of local officials who failed to grasp the magnitude of the threat.


Doctors and nurses here watched in frustration as colleagues died of severe acute respiratory syndrome because of poor infection controls, even though the government had months of warning about the contagious nature of the virus.

But in soaring songs on television and poetic odes in newspapers, these "white-clothed warriors" and "angels" have proudly risked their lives for the greater good of the Communist People's Republic, using "blood and flesh to build a new Great Wall."


"There must be deaths in a hard war, every soldier will embrace death at any time," reads a typically militaristic poem praising health care workers, published last weekend in the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily. "Unfortunately, there might come a day that the virus infects us, and truly brings about our fall in the ward, then let us smile calmly, and take 'pride' as our epitaph."

Many China watchers have expressed the hope that the outbreak of SARS would be China's Chernobyl, impelling a leadership with a nearly 54-year history of tight political and media controls toward a miraculous conversion to openness.

Instead, the government has turned back the clock, cranking its propaganda machine into high gear and repackaging Mao-era rhetoric in a concerted effort to rally the nation in a patriotic "People's War" against SARS.

It is China's equivalent of the national mood in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. The war on SARS is the war on terrorism; health care workers are the firefighters and police officers risking their lives to save others; and new President Hu Jintao is President Bush, finding his footing as a leader in a national emergency.

"The American media after 9/11 and the Chinese media after the SARS outbreak are quite similar," said Li Xiguang, a journalism professor and director of the Center for International Communications Studies at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "I think the public needs this. ... They need the assurance, the final confirmation of the government that everything is OK, everything is safe, everything is under government control."

A key difference, however, is that the American version of nationalist propaganda after Sept. 11 was driven by a public demand for heroes in the face of an external attack, and the news media were free to investigate and report on mistakes made by the government. The American public rallied around rescue workers and the president, and many media outlets waved the flag in support - by choice.

Official control

The Chinese Communist Party, by contrast, has used its monopoly control of the news media to manufacture heroes and villains for 54 years and often does so to deflect attention from problems it helped create or cannot solve.


Though the leadership has shown much more tolerance in recent years for an aggressive press trying to sell papers, that freedom does not extend to politically sensitive issues that cast top leaders in a negative light.

For years, daring newspapers have tested the limits to see how much they can get away with, but state news media operate under the constant threat of censorship, discipline, suspension or being shut down if their coverage goes too far.

A Guangdong-based weekly, 21st Century World Herald, was ordered to suspend publication in March after printing a signed commentary that advocated political reform and criticized former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. It has yet to resume publishing.

Top editors at two other publications, Beijing's China News Weekly and Guangdong-based Southern Weekend, were reassigned this year after offending top officials with their political coverage.

Top officials ordered that state media not report about the spread of SARS in southern Guangdong province, where it is believed to have originated last fall, and throughout China. With the exception of a brief period of openness in Guangdong in mid-February, the news media provided almost no information on SARS, and the most-watched national television news program ignored the topic until early last month.

The damage inflicted by such controls appears to have altered only the government's tactics, not its underlying goals. The Ministry of Propaganda lifted the ban on SARS reporting but has dictated that coverage should be positive in tone.


This month, the official New China News Agency reported a submarine disaster that left the crew dead, an extremely rare acknowledgment of a military accident that some analysts viewed as a calculated effort to appear open after the embarrassment of SARS.

A few news outlets, including Beijing-based Caijing magazine, a small-circulation business biweekly, have pushed the boundaries on SARS in recent weeks by publishing exposes on such topics as the weaknesses of rural health care. But such reporting generally focuses on officially acknowledged social problems and does not venture into overt criticism of central government leaders.

A warlike campaign

The predominant tone of broadcasts and newspapers is represented by the avalanche of patriotic songs and articles in the past month, with top leaders shown making inspections of hospitals and declaring the nation's resolve to defeat SARS.

"The Chinese government has been accustomed to using political propaganda to solve all problems in the past," said Chen Lidan, a journalism professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing who is to publish a commentary on the role of propaganda during SARS in a Shanghai journalism review. "The Communist Party came to power out of a war, so the media has a lot of warlike or military expressions. But SARS actually needs quarantines. It cannot be solved by a political campaign of the masses."

The success of the government's campaign against SARS may depend in part on the success of its propaganda campaign. By delivering SARS-related songs, poems and news reports on nearly every television channel and in every newspaper, Beijing has sent a clear message that SARS is a grave threat to public health.


One national television station aimed at the nation's populous rural areas is playing a song educating farmers about the virus:

"Dear farmer friends, listen to me please, your health is as precious as gold, the government is worrying about it," the song begins. "Symptoms of SARS are obvious, a fever with a dry cough, plus muscle aches throughout the body. ... If your family members have the above symptoms, please send for the doctors immediately, you need to be quarantined to prevent further infection, never ever procrastinate."

The singer is Xue Cun, who also sang a tune honoring peasants' patriotism. Xue concludes the SARS country ditty by singing, "The government is worrying about [your health], the medical facilities in the countryside are not good, you need to pay more attention to prevention, a beautiful tomorrow is waiting for you and me."

Beyond the practical benefits of such a media effort, it is not clear how politically effective this propaganda will be in an age of electronic communication and economic reforms that have given the public much more to think about than what the Communist Party says.

Former President Jiang Zemin's attempts at slogans are still ridiculed in ways that would have been unthinkable under Mao Tse-tung, when people lived in a closed, claustrophobic world of the party's making.

SARS has provoked new satiric wrinkles, including this scathing bit about the Communist Party making its way around on cell phone text messages: "The party couldn't control squandering on banquets, SARS resolved it. The party couldn't control traveling using public money, SARS resolved it. The party couldn't cut off mountains of documents and seas of meetings, SARS resolved it. The party couldn't eliminate the cheating and underreporting of officials, SARS resolved it. The party couldn't stop prostitution and whoring, SARS resolved it."


The limits of the party's influence were especially clear in the early months of the SARS outbreak, when tens of millions of Chinese shared information about the spread of the virus via cell phone messages, e-mail and Internet chat, while the government said nothing. When officials broke their silence early last month, they publicly asserted that SARS was under control, even as the outbreak spread in Beijing.

That angered a 72-year-old military doctor in Beijing, Jiang Yanyong, who soon told foreign reporters that the government was lying about the number of SARS cases in Beijing. Jiang, who risked government retribution for speaking out, was ignored by the Chinese news media until foreign reporters asked government officials about him last week.

Since then, a Chinese wire service has run an interview with him about his life, in which the main point seems to be that the government hasn't put restrictions on him. His role in revealing the SARS cover-up is mentioned only in passing.

The government has many platforms available to praise such a hero, including a 24-hour news channel launched this month, but only politically correct heroes need apply.

"As long as the masses have one heart, the will of the people is strong like a rampart, and we prevent and treat scientifically," President Hu declared upon visiting rural areas in Sichuan province last week. "We will definitely triumph over SARS, the evil spirit of illness."