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Nearly 2 decades after SARS, here’s what’s changed as China tackles coronavirus

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As a viral outbreak spread from the central Chinese city of Wuhan this week, the ruling Communist Party’s central political and legal affairs commission issued a stern warning: “Whoever deliberately delays and conceals reports will forever be nailed to history’s pillar of shame.”

The proclamation Tuesday signalled both China’s growing confidence and its greater awareness of censorship’s pitfalls.

The threat headlined an online essay that referred directly to SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, an epidemic that not only devastated parts of China but also exposed government deception.

Nearly two decades later, a more assertive China appears determined not to repeat its past mistakes.

“Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels must put people’s lives and health first,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said Monday. “It is necessary to release epidemic information in a timely manner and deepen international cooperation.”

Under Xi, widely considered the country’s most authoritarian leader in decades, China has adopted a more proactive public relations strategy, showing an ever greater determination to control the narrative by putting out large quantities of its own information — as opposed to trying to make an explosive issue disappear.

The outbreak, which has sickened more than 440 people and killed at least nine, is a major test of Xi’s leadership as he seeks to grapple with challenges such as China’s slowing economy, its trade war with the U.S., anti-government protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s defiance, said Joseph Cheng, a political scholar in Hong Kong.

“This could help him save face,” Cheng said. “He knows the consequences to his leadership — to his reputation — if he fails on this front.”

Xi’s comments Monday were his first public ones on the outbreak, and they seemed aimed at reassuring the Chinese public that there wasn’t another SARS-level cover-up in the making.

For months in 2002 and 2003, even after SARS had spread around the world, China sought to conceal the number of actual cases by parking patients in hotels and obscure hospital wings, and even driving them around in ambulances to avoid detection by World Health Organization experts.

China in that era was just beginning to embrace the internet, and smartphones were years away. Beijing had yet to stage the 2008 Summer Olympics, and the country was just at the start of an economic boom that has since made its economy the second largest in the world.

At the time, people who revealed information about SARS that the government hadn’t publicized could be accused of leaking state secrets. Media outlets were muzzled, leaving the public in the dark. It was only after a retired high-ranking physician spoke out that the true measure of authorities’ concealment became known.

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