How does the Chinese Communist Party manage to calm a public convinced that -- on matters of public health, at least -- officials are probably lying to them?
It’s a critical question as infections and fatalities related to the H7N9 bird flu slowly tick upward, unnerving Chinese disinclined to trust their government. The crisis of confidence has its roots in the fatal consequences of the high- level coverup of SARS in 2003, and, more recently, in the still unexplained dead-pig tide that polluted Shanghai waterways. With this sorry history as a precursor and widely assumed precedent, Chinese seem ready to believe anything that doesn’t come from a government mouthpiece -- especially if it contradicts the official story or fills a knowledge gap that the government hasn’t addressed.
Consider this sarcastic tweet to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular Twitter-like microblog, on Monday morning by Wu Yan, a popular Internet commentator and writer. In addition to bird flu and SARS, it invokes China’s crackdowns on corrupt officials and the country’s long-standing problems with contaminated dairy products: “From SARS to H7N9, the most horrible Chinese virus has never been cured: a regime that doesn’t want to tell the truth. The root of bird flu is not an animal but those nasty lies from lunatic officials, including: Dead pigs don’t influence the water quality, and domestic milk powder is the safest. And there is a very small ratio of greedy officials or even none! --- Human flu is much worse than bird flu.”
Wu’s tweet was re-posted about 2,000 times in the 12 hours after he posted it and has generated more than 300 comments, most of them supportive. Though harsh for a popular Chinese Internet commentator (such sentiments are most common on anonymous accounts), Wu’s tweet resides in the mainstream of recent Chinese Internet commentary on government transparency -- especially regarding the dead-pig tide.
In March, shortly after the dead pigs became a major public-relations crisis, Shanghai officials insisted that water drawn from the river in which the pigs resided was safe to drink. It would have been a preposterous claim to make about dirty Shanghai water even before thousands of dead pigs floated down it. Coming afterward, it only served to impugn the credibility of officials who just weeks later would be pressured by a restless public to explain whether the newly emerged H7N9 bird flu -- which started its run with two Shanghai infections - - had anything to do with those same pigs. And so, when Shanghai officials announced on April 1 that tests on pig corpses didn’t turn up the H7N9 virus, few believed them.
On China’s microblogs, dead pig and H7N9 bird flu connections are rife -- and have become even more popular since the government denied them. Some tweets read like the ravings of conspiracy theorists. Others sound like the armchair investigations of sincerely concerned citizens. Several are just funny: “Shanghai is a magical place,” tweeted an engineer on Monday night in China. “Toss a dead pig into the water and H7N9 comes out. Take care of yourself, brother official.”
These skeptical, sometimes hostile, posts continue to surface despite the fact that microblogging accounts associated with Party-owned news sites are repeatedly re-posting accounts of the week-old denial of an H7N9-pig connection. This leaves officials charged with figuring out a way to cool the public’s nerves about a bird flu nobody really understands, and a dead- pig tide the government appears determined to keep to itself, with a thorny problem: If the public seems resolved to doubt you -- even when you believe you’re telling the truth -- what can you do?
One approach is to pretend everything is OK, while ignoring the apocalyptic overtones to much of the recent news out of Shanghai. That’s the approach that CCTV -- China’s Communist Party-owned television juggernaut -- attempted on the April 5 edition of the network’s signature prime-time news broadcast, Xinwen Lianbo. It provided viewers with several entertaining, soft-news stories, including features on the Amazon River tidal bore and the annual migration of East African wildlife across the Serengeti -- and absolutely nothing about the killer flu in the country’s commercial capital.
That did not go over well, particularly with members of the Chinese news media. Feng Xincheng, the respected editor of New Weekly magazine, summarized the feelings of many of his colleagues when he tweeted to his 2.8 million Sina Weibo followers on April 5: “There are dead pigs floating in the Yangtze River, but you point your camera at the Amazon; your people fear bird flu, and you live broadcast the great migration across the Serengeti. In the end, which country’s station are you?”
Feng’s tweet has been re-posted more than 108,000 times and generated more than 29,000 almost universally positive comments. CCTV seems to have gotten the message (and it wasn’t just Feng sending it): Since April 6, H7N9 -- but not dead pigs -- has featured prominently featured in CCTV’s prime-time newscasts.
Another approach that China’s authorities have tried with more success is to impress upon the public that the government cares about health in times of crisis. At a government press conference in Shanghai on April 5, the only materials provided to reporters described the benefits of traditional Chinese medicine in treating the disease. Since then, newspapers and microblogs have been packed with H7N9-related health tips, including the need to wash hands regularly, keep homes well- ventilated, and avoid contact with live and dead (uncooked) birds.
Even this well-intentioned lunge at credibility runs into problems with a skeptical Chinese public. And the criticism sometimes comes from unexpected quarters; on April 7, Youth Times, a Communist Youth League-owned paper in Zhengzhou, ran an editorial that invoked Beijing’s recent air-quality woes, and the government’s credibility on that issue, when it asked: “If there’s heavy haze, experts say close the windows; H7N9 comes, and experts say the window should remain open. I would like to know, should the windows be open or closed? Many people see this question and can’t help but stifle a laugh. But it’s a painful laugh.”
The pain, the editorial notes, comes from a lack of trust in China’s public-health system. Clearly, this extends far beyond health to the government authorities who are -- or are not -- providing information to unnerved officials in Shanghai and elsewhere in China.
Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of the public- opinion management over the first week of the bird-flu crisis is the hands-off approach to the Internet. So far, there’s been almost no censorship of posts, including those that are critical of the government and even spread rumors of infections in Beijing (even after such rumors have been denied officially). Rumor-mongering has been aggressively censored in the past. Still, it’s probably best not to read too much into this moment of apparent freedom. It’s likely that Chinese officials have recognized that censoring panic will only result in more panic.
Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing Junkyard Planet, a book on the global recycling industry.