For AIDS activist Hu Jia, reports of China's exploding SARS epidemic brought on a most unpleasant déjà vu. Once again, a mysterious new disease was killing untold numbers of people, and the government-controlled media was telling the public that only a handful had died and that the disease was not a significant problem.
"Everything I saw in the domestic press said that the disease was under control, and that the outbreak was not serious," Hu said.
But Hu -- like many in China -- was suspicious of the local media. He had already seen how they downplayed the spread of AIDS a decade earlier. This time, however, he had a way to get around the information blackout: He turned to the Internet.
What he found when he began looking at Singapore and Hong Kong online media startled him. While the Chinese government had reported that only a dozen people had died, he learned online that hundreds had died and thousands more were infected. And worse, the death rate was rapidly rising.
"We just assumed that the Communist Party's propaganda department had banned domestic media from reporting on this," Hu said.
"I felt the media were lying, and that they were intentionally suppressing news about SARS. I saw the April 7 press conference by Health Minister Zhang Wenkang, and I thought his lies were really outrageous."
Hu was one of the privileged few; before April 20, when the government finally announced the true scope of the epidemic, only those Chinese with access to overseas media via the Internet or satellite TV were able to peer behind the curtain of official denial to see the virus' spread across the nation.
Like many young, urban Chinese, Hu gets the bulk of his information from the Internet. In the online forum of Singapore's United Morning Post, he found a Chinese translation of a Time magazine report in early April on military doctor Jiang Yanyong, who boldly accused the health ministry of a cover-up. The report was not mentioned in the Chinese media until recently.
Although the disease was first identified in Guangdong province last November, it took time to attract attention on the Internet. "I first started getting information on SARS through the grapevine in February, mostly on the BBS (bulletin board) of commercial portals," said an employee at Netor.com, a site that memorializes doctors who have died treating SARS patients.
"At the time, I only half-believed what I was seeing. But in China, it often happens that news that starts out as back channel information is eventually confirmed," said the employee, who asked not to be named.
As time went on, his skepticism grew. "The turning point came for me in early April," he said. "I felt the media were lying, and that they were intentionally suppressing news about SARS. I saw the April 7 press conference by Health Minister Zhang Wenkang, and I thought his lies were really outrageous."
"Because we work with the Internet, we have long felt that news in mainstream media is routinely manipulated. They just tell you want they want you to think."
Before the government's policy reversal, chat room and online discussion group monitors used keyword filters or manually deleted any postings containing the Chinese characters for atypical pneumonia, as SARS was then called. Netizens easily defeated the filters by using homophones.
When reports of SARS began appearing in January, the media downplayed the virulence of the disease. But for three days beginning Feb. 8, Guangzhou, Guandongs provincial capital, was flooded with more than 120 million cell phone text messages warning of a lethal new disease in the province. Panic buying of cold medicines and surgical masks broke out.
By early March, the first SARS cases had appeared in Beijing, but the capital was consumed by a leadership transition when Hu Jintao took over as head of state and of the Communist Party. Officials instructed doctors and media not to report on SARS for fear of disrupting the transition, said Jiang Yanong, the military doctor quoted in Time.
By early April, the volume of SARS-related postings on Shanghai's Fudan University discussion board prompted school officials to set up a board just for that topic. Students seeking practical information on protecting themselves from the disease unleashed a deluge of questions. "Are our classrooms being disinfected?" "Is the disease communicable during its incubation period?" "Is it true that teachers returning to Shanghai from the provinces are being quarantined for 10 days?"
"Some people posted on our BBS articles translated from foreign media saying that Beijing's SARS statistics were inaccurate," said a third-year student at People's University in Beijing.
"When the outbreak in Beijing exploded, a lot of my classmates were trading information on our school's BBS," said the student, who asked not to be named. People were pretty panicked, and a lot of students left and went home," in violation of government orders that students should remain on campus.
"I looked for information online about how people were moving around, and how SARS was being transmitted by rail and by air," the student said. "I thought that if I got SARS and went home, I might infect people in my hometown, so I decided not to leave."
For some, the SARS cover-up further eroded the publics faith in the media and increased the credibility of the Internet as a news source.
"Many people in Beijing get their news from traditional media sources and are wary of information on the Internet," said a real estate executive who is one of the few Beijing residents with a broadband connection. He gets much of his world news from Voice of America and BBC broadcasts over the Internet.
"At first, I thought nothing of the reports on the Internet about the epidemic," the real estate agent recalled. "I thought they were fake." But once it was apparent that Beijing municipal government and health ministry officials had grossly underreported the extent of the epidemic, he changed his mind.
"This is not the sort of thing the government should be deceiving the people about. But they deceived us," he said. "This caused a credibility crisis for the government, and many of us began to tune in to the Internet and Phoenix Channel," a satellite TV station that is partly owned by a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp.
As news leaked out and doubts mounted, pressure from the World Health Organization was making the governments cover-up unsustainable. On March 15, WHO issued a travel advisory counseling against travel to China and pressed Beijing for more information about the extent of the outbreak.
The government's decision to scrap its policy of denial was finally made at a leadership meeting on April 17. A notice the next day instructed media to "broadly propagate to the masses knowledge about preventing the disease," while "correctly guiding public opinion, eliminating doubts and stabilizing people's moods."
This was the green light the media had been waiting for. Front pages and Web sites ran bold headlines announcing the government's admission that it had underreported by a factor of 10 the number of SARS cases in Beijing. The Communist Party also demanded the firing of Zhang, the health minister, and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong.
The news sent Internet traffic surging as sites scrambled to provide special coverage, including daily statistics on infections and deaths and a slew of emergency measures to control the disease's spread.
"Traffic on our site has been about the same as during the Iraq war, but it's still a record for us," said Tiger Zeng, head of the news center at Sohu.com, one of China's top NASDAQ-listed portals. The news center draws content from more than 300 Chinese media outlets.
"We've been recording 100 million page views a day, and we've had to increase the capacity of our servers by 40 percent. It's been a challenge for us and has prompted us to improve the ways in which we keep people informed," Zeng said. Sohu responded quickly to the government reversal by sending half of its 500 staff members to work at home to avoid catching SARS.
"Many of us just sent text messages to our friends out of concern, to warn them, for example that the military's hospital No. 301 had SARS cases and that people should avoid it," said one of a trio of stockbrokers milling about outside their office after work.
"Some messages we just treat as entertainment," he said pointing to a message that purported to be an advertisement for a resort, with "white clad hostesses," that was in fact the 1,000-bed SARS field hospital in the Beijing suburbs.
Rumors of deaths, draconian government measures and panic buying also spread by SMS messages, which have become wildly popular in the world's most cell phone-packing nation.
In contrast to the Internet, which is subject to firewalls, content filtering software and monitoring by cyberpolice, text messages have remained relatively unregulated.
Meanwhile, online discussions about SARS moved from the medical to the political. Many BBS postings applauded President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao for their decision to admit the official bungling and deception. Yet many postings saw the sacked officials as scapegoats, doubting that they alone were responsible for the cover-up.
Other postings lambasted Hus predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who had retained military power in the leadership transition. Jiang packed the ruling party politburo with allies from his days as mayor of Shanghai, and numerous postings accused him of condoning the cover-up, then retreating to the safety of Shanghai as the epidemic raged in Beijing.
"Oddly enough, many of these postings have not been removed," said Kate Hartford, an expert on Chinese politics and the Internet at the University of Massachusetts. "It's amazing to me because people are being very forthright here," she said from the Johns Hopkins Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies, where she is teaching this year.
Censors' judgment of what is subversive is highly arbitrary, and Chinese writers have landed in jail for far milder commentary. Yet given the online hailstorm of criticism of the government's handling of the SARS epidemic, it is surprising that their have been no reported arrests for political criticism.
Instead, the cyberpolice have focused their energies on nabbing rumormongers. Police in Guangdong arrested five residents for spreading by SMS rumors of a provincial water shortage, Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po newspaper reported. Several others were arrested for an SMS message claiming that SARS deaths had passed the 10,000 mark and that cell phone users could get paid for passing the message on.
Whether the SARS crisis increases freedom of discussion on the Internet depends on how events play out. Many observers see the crisis as a potential turning point in China's progress toward more accountable and transparent government. But if a power struggle at the top ensues and those advocating openness lose out, Netizens could come to regret some of their critical postings.
Anthony Kuhn is a Beijing-based writer and correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
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