10 years ago in 2003 when SARS was gradually under control, China’s now retired president Hu Jintao took power. 10 years later, Xi Jinping steps onto the stage and here is H7N9 bird flu, which already has 7 confirmed infections, including 2 deaths as of this morning. Many of Chinese netizens sighed: “History always repeats itself. It’s been 10 years, and we circle back.”
With that said, no one would tolerate a similar coverup this time. Back in 2002 when SARS broke out, the Chinese government covered up the epidemic for months in the hope to prevent public panic. Now in an age of Weibo (China’s Twitter), people demand timely information and transparency. Like 都市快报, a local newspaper in Zhejiang province, commented: “The SARS epidemic 10 years ago left us with a lesson of tears and blood. A people without memory is a people without hope. A government unable to think back and learn from its past is an unqualified government.”
So far, many netizens seemed to feel that their government has been doing an OK job. Like netizen 孙大泡老窝 commented: “The government is doing an OK job till now. The World Health Organization was informed on April 1st. Taiwan and Hong Kong also received notices. Rapid test kits are already ready for use. Emergent programs for prevention and control have been activated. [The government] has learned from SARS.”
Weibo, the microblogging platform that has brought quite some change to China’s political as well as social landscape in the past 2 years, shows, once again, its importance in improving the communication between the Chinese government and its people. 点子正, a vocal leftist on Weibo, commented: “We had BBS (Bulletin Board Services) when SARS happened. We had blogs when H1N1 bird flu happened. Now with H7N9 flu, we have Weibo. To curb rumors [on Weibo] is the best way to guard against an epidemic flu. Open information is the best prevention. Public announcement on Weibo is the best vaccine.”
To inform the public via Weibo is exactly what is happening right now. Almost all major Chinese media have been updating the latest infection and death information through their official Weibo accounts. Several accounts of local hospitals and official city accounts have also been updating H7N9 related information and necessary prevention measures.
But anyone who is familiar with the dynamics of the Chinese Internet knows that times like this are when China’s censors are on full gear. Sina’s censors are already at work. For example, @薛之谦, a singer according to his Weibo profile, was banned from posting on Weibo for 15 days for spreading unverified information on H7N9 flu in Shanghai.
Of course, Weibo is never short of all kinds of rumors, especially for something like the H7N9 flu. Many netizens, while having no better information sources to go to, called for caution when reading flu related information on Weibo. But what concerns them are not rumors, but filtered information approved by the government.
Shanghai government explained that it acknowledged the first H7N9 cases 20 days later because they needed enough time to test and confirm a new flu virus like the H7N9. Many netizens took the explanation with a grain of salt – their question is why it took so long and whether it’s only an excuse for further coverup. Like a netizen commented: “I smelled a coverup.” Another netizen TOT-Snowman spoke from his SARS experience: “10 years ago, the government had no choice but to acknowledge the epidemic when it can no longer cover up. 10 years later, I hope they’ve changed.”
The most important thing right now, as Nanfang put it, “is to honestly and timely release information. Don’t let the tragedy of SARS happen again.”