Freedom of the Press and the 2002-2003 SARS Outbreak

SARS provided a tragic example of how China's prior restraint system allows the government to suppress freedom of expression and prevent China's media from reporting on matters of public concern. This system impedes the free flow of information in a way that threatens the well-being of Chinese citizens and, as China has chosen to participate increasingly in global affairs, everyone with whom they interact. For example, the Chinese government's suppression of free reporting of the SARS outbreaks impeded the efficiency of the WHO's Global Public Health Information Network, an electronic surveillance system that actively trawls the World Wide Web looking for reports of communicable diseases and communicable disease syndromes in electronic discussion groups, on news wires, and elsewhere on the Web.

In December 2002, health care workers in Guangdong Province began noticing people coming in with "atypical pneumonia," and by early January 2003 people were already engaged in panic buying at drug stores because of rumors of a "mystery epidemic."1 But the same government-controlled newspapers that first broke the story in early January devoted most of their coverage to stories with headlines claiming "The Appearance of an Unknown Virus in He Yuan is a Rumor" and articles quoting government claims that "there is no epidemic."2 Chinese authorities did not begin to allow reporting on the crisis until the disease began killing people in Hong Kong, where there is little direct government restraint on the free flow of information. Even then, the government-controlled Chinese media continued to insist that everything was under control for several weeks.

In response to their cover-up and mishandling of the SARS crisis, Chinese authorities did dismiss some senior officials and enact regulations to discourage provincial and local officials from concealing information from the central government. However, these reforms were not intended to relax the government's control over the media or the free flow of information to the general public. Rather, the goal was to increase the flow of information to central authorities in Beijing, control how the press reported on the matter, and prevent private citizens from publishing opinions regarding the government's handling of the crisis.3 For example, in the same month the Ministry of Health issued a notice requiring government departments to conscientiously report incidents of unknown infectious diseases to the Ministry, several provincial and municipal governments issued a notice threatening Internet users who "distorted facts" or "spread rumors" regarding SARS with criminal prosecution. As one expert told a Commission Roundtable:

For the time being, it appears the mainland's initial denial and slow response to the SARS outbreak characterizes a political environment where individual initiative is discouraged and social stability is protected above other interests, to the detriment of social safety.

Congressional-Executive Commission on China Roundtable, Dangerous Secret: SARS and China's Health Care System, Testimony and written statement of Bates Gill (2 September 2003)

Although admissions that authorities mishandled the SARS crisis appeared in some Chinese newspapers, criticism was limited to local officials and "the media," while the central government was portrayed as coming to the rescue of the people.4 It remained forbidden to discuss the lack of a free press or the role that the Communist Party, the central government, and the censorship and media control systems they have established played in allowing SARS to spread unchecked for so long.

The following events further illustrate how the SARS crisis has not resulted in any meaningful relaxation of the Chinese government's control over the reporting of politically sensitive news:

  • In April 2003, authorities in Beijing arrested a person for sending messages saying that an "undiagnosed contagious disease was spreading in Beijing," on the grounds that he was spreading rumors and that "Beijing had never had the spread of any `mysterious illness.'"5
  • In April 2003, two editors at Xinhua were fired for publishing a document about SARS.6
  • In April 2003, Chinese authorities removed the editor-in-chief of Southern Weekend, a publication known for addressing politically sensitive topics, and replaced him with Zhang Dongming, a former Director of News Media at the Propaganda Department in Guangdong, who some observers in China consider partly responsible for the initial SARS cover-up.7
  • In May 2003, China blacked out a CNN interview that was critical of the government's handling of the SARS crisis.8
  • In June 2003, Chinese authorities blocked distribution of an issue of Caijing magazine that discussed the government's handling of the SARS crisis. Although it was reported that Caijing editors claimed that the failure to distribute the issue was the result of logistical problems, censors repeatedly blocked attempts by Commission staff to post questions such as "Has Caijing been censored?" on government-controlled Internet bulletin boards.
  • In July 2003, the Propaganda Department issued a notice to at least one television station prohibiting it from inviting academics to discuss the government's handling of the SARS crisis.9
Learn More

For a detailed discussion of the role of information control in the spread of SARS, see the Congressional-Executive Commission on China Topic Paper "Information Control and Self-Censorship in the PRC and the Spread of SARS," 7 May 2003.


1 Huang Liqi, " Incident Resulting from Rumors of an Unknown Virus, Heyuan City Citizens Fight to Buy Antibiotics" Jinyang Net (the online version of the Yangcheng Evening News), 3 January 2003. China's government-controlled media stated that people in Guangdong began coming down with SARS in November of 2002. See "What Can We Do to Defeat SARS?", Southern Weekend, 24 April 2003.

2 "Heyuan City Citizens go to Guangzhou in Panic Buying of Antibiotics," Jinyang Net, 5 January 2003; "The Appearance of an Unknown Virus in Heyuan is a Rumor," Jinyang Net, 9 January 2003.

3 Compare Notice Regarding Strengthening Work on the Prevention of Infectious Diseases [Guanyu jiaqiang chuanranbing zhi gongzuo de tongzhi], art. 4, issued 13 May 2003, with Notice Regarding Strictly Prohibiting Utilizing the Internet to Produce or Transmit Harmful or False Information [Guanyu yanjin liyong hulianwang zhizuo, chuanbo youhai he bushi deng xinxi de gonggao], issued 3 May 2003, by the Shanghai Municipal Government Coordination Working Group Focusing on the Elimination and Rectification of Harmful Information on the Internet.

4 See, e.g., "Editorial: Sharing Health Info with the Public," China Daily, 27 August 2003:

The outcome would have been hard to imagine, had Beijing not shared information with the public and the rest of the world and ordered a nationwide mobilization.

But if China's press were allowed to operate more independently of government controls, it might have informed the public in a more timely manner, and the epidemic may well have been contained within the borders of Guangdong Province. See also, Ray Cheung, "Investigative Newspaper's Virus Reports 'Are Being Censored,'" South China Morning Post, 9 May 2003 ; "China Gags SARS Talk on Net," South China Morning Post, 7 April 2003, citing AFP Beijing; Xue Baosheng, "Valuable Lesson for Government to Learn," China Daily, 6 June 2003; and Shu Xueshan, "A Test for Government and the Media," Jinyang Net, 15 February 2003.

5 "An Individual Spreading Rumors that `An Unknown Epidemic is Spreading in Beijing' is Arrested," People's Daily, 23 April 2003, citing the Beijing Youth Daily.

6 "Two Chinese Editors Sacked Over Confidential SARS Document," South China Morning Post, 29 April 2003, citing Agence France-Presse, Beijing.

7 Richard McGregor, "China Moves to Control Liberal Paper," Financial Times, 4 May 2003.

8 "China Censors CNN SARS Report," CNN, 15 May 2003, (2 September 2003).

9 "Media and Academics `Gagged by Officials' over SARS," South China Morning Post, 2 July 2003.