by Kim Petersen
April 21, 2003
The journey to Beijing last week was an eye-opener. It was a 24-hour journey on a standing-room only train. Most passengers lugged heavy cloth or plastic sacks in lieu of fashionable baggage. They were mainly rural folk traveling to work in the cities or to meet family. One was a student who attempted to probe my thoughts on what was transpiring in Iraq but language barriers rendered the conversation difficult and health concerns rendered it risky.
For 24 hours I was sandwiched in with a bunch of people in the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-ridden land of China. None wore masks. A few people sneezed and a few people coughed and many people spat, oblivious to any one sitting or standing near them. It was nothing out of the ordinary in China.
In Beijing it was apparent that many of the citizens were taking a more cautious approach as many wore facemasks. Many schools, universities, and embassies were shutting down next week.
That evening I had dinner with some businesspeople and a TV journalist. The topic turned to the media sanitization of the aggression on Iraq. In response to my query as to the level of journalistic freedom the TV journalist and one businessman, a former journalist, agreed reporting was controlled. Under the mild influence of alcohol the TV journalist freely proffered such information as unsanctioned anti-war demonstrations having taken place at various universities and that 2000 Muslims in Gansu province, with a large Hui (Han-descended Chinese Muslim) population, had volunteered to go and fight in Iraq. High intervention stopped participation. This was unreported in China. The journalist promised to provide much information the next day. However, cleared of the fog of alcohol the TV journalist was suddenly too busy and the significance was clear.
Previously Chinese media had mendaciously claimed that World Health Organization officials were lauding it. No mention was made of any criticism. A hospital worker in nearby Hebei province reported that her hospital had hidden all cases of SARS among the 500 deaths that had occurred at the hospital so far this year. Although she knew me well she realized the implications of what she said and wouldn’t elaborate further.
On the train trip back I was booked in a sleeper compartment that would become free at the next station. When the bed became free I requested that the sheets be changed but this was refused. This was curious to say the least. For many days Chinese TV had shown teams of workers disinfecting planes and trains but the reality was that passengers had to settle for using the same pillowcase and sheets that previous passengers had used. It hardly seemed like a reasonable precaution in a country struggling to protect its people's health -- and national reputation -- in the fight against the contagious and deadly SARS epidemic.
Meanwhile the Chinese Golden Week is fast approaching and tourism revenues are sure to suffer.
A few hours ago I received a phone call from my hospital worker friend. She divulged that a doctor in her hospital now has SARS and urged my wife and I to be careful.
It looks now as though the Chinese Golden Week is about to be canceled.
Kim Petersen is an English teacher living in China. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org