How Zhang Dejiang helped create Hong Kong’s fatal SARS epidemic

Paper graves set up to protest Zhang Dejiang’s visit mark the deaths of SARS victims in Hong Kong.
Paper graves set up to protest Zhang Dejiang’s visit mark the deaths of SARS victims in Hong Kong.
Image: AP photo/Vincent Yu
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The streets and the restaurants were empty, hundreds of people quarantined in their homes. Arrivals at the airport had fallen to a historical low, and those who could had left already. People married protected by face masks, while children’s birthday parties were cancelled. Health-workers were covered head-to-toe in plastic protective gear, and hospital visits were kept to the bare minimum.

Hong Kong in the time of SARS, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that scarred the city in the first few months of 2003, was a scared, surreal place.

The virus, a coronavirus identified at the end of March by Carlo Umberti, an Italian doctor working for the World Health Organization that caught the disease in Vietnam and died of it in a hospital in Bangkok, originated in Guangdong, in China, but a secretive system kept it hidden until it had spread widely, killing hundreds. In Hong Kong alone, 299 people lost their lives.

The disease was eventually traced to Foshan, in Guangdong, were it emerged probably in November 2002, and while the local and central authorities were immediately alerted of the deadly and mysterious virus that had appeared, their first reaction was one of denial and censorship.

Zhang Dejiang, now visiting Hong Kong under the heaviest security operation ever set up in the city for one single dignitary, had just been named the Party Secretary of Guangdong, after having made his entrance in the Politburo. An apparatchik man, educated in Pyongyang and better known for his loyal allegiance to former President Jiang Zemin than for his reformist qualities, he decided that the best course of action was to impose total silence on the issue.

The few newspapers that reported on the disease were criticized by the local censorship department, and ordered to stop printing anything that had not been pre-approved. The National Secrets Law was enforced over news of the spread of the epidemic, and a blanket censorship campaign was launched.

In February of 2003, though, the illness could no longer be kept hidden in southern China: people knew that something dangerous was afoot, and thanks to mobile phone texts, they could alert family and friends. In early February the message “There is a fatal flu in Guangzhou” was copied and pasted more than 125 million times through Guangdong Mobile.

On February 11, Zhang Dejiang asked health officials to call a press conference to say that there had been a disease, but that everything was already under control. No further reports were allowed in the media, again under direct orders of Zhang Dejiang, as recorded by Zixue Tai in his book The Internet in China.

As Tony Saich writes in “SARS in China”, Zhang oversaw much of the initial cover-up, in spite of being a member of the Politburo and thus capable of bringing the matter to the attention of China’s highest leadership had he so wished. Instead, two concerns seemed to override the emerging health crisis: that in the name of social stability and to increase spending, the Lunar New Year holidays should pass smoothly; and that the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, scheduled for March, would also proceed undisturbed.

A tug-of-war started between the Chinese authorities and WHO officials, who had been alerted by the deaths that were taking place in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, and Canada: WHO officials did arrive in China at the end of March, after having been issued an official invitation, but were not allowed into Guangdong until April 2. The press was still being tightly muzzled.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, was gripped by panic and, just six years after having passed under Beijing’s sovereignty, left utterly alone in dealing with its biggest health scare since the last plague epidemic of the 19th century.

Young ballet students wearing masks to protect themselves from SARS in Hong Kong in 2003. (AP/Vincent Yu)
Young ballet students wearing masks to protect themselves from SARS in Hong Kong in 2003. (AP/Vincent Yu)

Patient zero had been medical doctor Liu Jianlun, 64, who had came to Hong Kong from Guangzhou on February 21, to attend a wedding. He checked himself into room 911 of the Metropole Hotel, in Kowloon, where he took ill, infecting at least 16 other guests and visitors. Rushed to hospital, he died in early march, after having infected a number of hospital personnel, who would die soon afterwards.

For weeks, as the infection kept making people ill, Beijing denied anything untoward was taking place in the rest of the country, in spite of the public accusation launched on April 4 by Jiang Yanyong, a retired military surgeon that revealed in an email to CCTV leaked to the Western press that military hospitals were full of SARS patients.

Finally, on April 19, when the respiratory disease had already infected thousands, the government decided to stop the cover up.

Like in an old Stalinist textbook, the top-down decision finally forced the Guangdong authorities to stop stalling and begin to cooperate with the Hong Kong health authorities and WHO.

It marked a low point in trust between Hong Kong and its new sovereign. Yet, as Zhang Dejiang landed in Hong Kong on Tuesday (May 17), he immediately recalled his “cooperation with Hong Kong over SARS,” and the government’s “victory” over the disease 13 years ago. Not many Hongkongers have rosy memories of that time.