The SARS disaster was supposed to drag China into a new era of openness and responsibility. The deadly disease rippled across the world 17 years ago, abetted by a Chinese government that covered up its spread. As the scope of it became clear, China’s journalists, intellectuals and other critics helped shame Beijing into opening up about the problem.
“SARS has been our country’s 9/11,” said Xu Zhiyuan, then a young newspaper columnist and a fierce critic of the government’s handling of SARS, in a 2003 interview with The New York Times. “It has forced us to pay attention to the real meaning of globalization.”
Today, China faces the spread of another mysterious disease, a coronavirus, which so far has killed 17 people and infected more than 540. And while Beijing’s response has improved in some ways, it has regressed in others. It is censoring criticism. It is detaining people for spreading what it calls “rumors.” It is suppressing information it deems alarming.
Though China’s censors are busily scrubbing the Chinese internet, the country’s online community is registering its disappointment and alarm over Beijing’s handling of the new virus that has spread since December from the city of Wuhan to other countries, even the United States.
“I thought SARS would force China to rethink its governance model,” wrote Mr. Xu, now a video talk show host, on social media on Tuesday, who also posted a screenshot of his 2003 quote in the Times. “I was too naïve.”
In many ways, China has changed for the better since the SARS epidemic. Its economy has grown eightfold. It has built more skyscrapers, subways and high-speed rail lines than any other country. Its tech companies rival Silicon Valley’s giants. A more responsive bureaucracy provides more people with health care, social services and even quality of life improvements like parks.
When it comes to handling diseases, the public health system has improved dramatically. Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, is also home to one of the most advanced epidemic disease research laboratories in the world.
Those improvements have come at a price. The government has tightened its grip on the internet, the media and civil society. It has deeper pockets and a greater ability to control the flow of information across the country.
As a result, many of the media outlets, advocacy groups, activists and others who held the government accountable in 2003 have been silenced or sidelined.