In late 2002, whilst China’s ruling Communist Party was in the midst of a leadership transition, Beijing became aware that a new disease was killing people in the southern province of Guangdong.
Worried that the news would be destabilising, the government suppressed reports on the disease until Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were confirmed as president and premier at the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2003.
The illness was SARS and China got an international dressing-down for its delay in publicising the outbreak.
But old habits die hard as events in the past two weeks show. During the parliamentary meeting, there were still efforts to impose a “no bad news period”.
Top of the list was the missing Malaysia Airlines flight with 153 Chinese passengers on board. But the level of intrigue surrounding the story meant that the authorities couldn’t simply order it to go away. Instead, as WiC wrote last week, the media was instructed “ not to hype” MH370’s disappearance and coverage was limited to the bottom half of the evening news bulletins.
Official reporting of the mystery focused on China’s effort to help locate the missing plane – such as an announcement Beijing now has 21 satellites searching for the Boeing 777 – as well as criticism of the way that the Malaysian government has handled the investigation.
But no Chinese leaders have gone to visit relatives of the missing passengers. Many family members were still holed up in a hotel in the north of Beijing this week.
On Tuesday some family members threatened to go on hunger strike if they did not get more information (see photo above which features a passenger’s relative whose exasperation is plain).
Meanwhile other details began to emerge of another incident hushed up during the Two Sessions (the term for the back-to-back meetings of the CPPCC and NPC in Beijing): a massive fire that killed at least 30 people in a highway tunnel in the northern province of Shanxi.
The blaze, caused by a truck carrying methanol rear-ending another vehicle, happened in the early hours of March 1, two days before the CPPCC opened in Beijing.
State media issued a cursory two paragraph bulletin that the tunnel was now closed but it was only on March 14 – after the NPC had closed – that the full details of the fire began to appear in newspapers.
On March 12 the State Council Information Office issued the following directive: “Take heed to delete the article ‘39 Missing in Shanxi Tunnel Explosion’. Related print and broadcast content must only use information from relevant government authorities and Xinhua wire copy. Do not hype this story.”
Only the next afternoon – after Li Keqiang’s press conference – was the death toll released by wire services.
As Wilson Centre fellow Anne Marie Brady says in her 2007 book Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China: “Guidelines encouraging a focus on positive reporting are particularly strict during holiday periods and sensitive political dates.”
Brady says something similar happened during the SARS epidemic. During November 2002 and at the NPC in March 2003, “editors had been strictly instructed to report only positive stories in order to maintain political stability… resulting in SARS spreading not only all over China but to neighbouring countries as well.”
Today it is less likely that China would be ready or able to cover up something as dangerous as an outbreak similar to SARS. But it is worrying that – at certain times of year – there still seems to be an instinct to do so.
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