On bird flu, China shows new openness

Gillian Wong / The Associated Press /

SHANGHAI — After a new and lethal strain of bird flu emerged in Shanghai two weeks ago, the government of China’s bustling financial capital responded with live updates on a Twitter-like microblog. It’s a starkly different approach than a decade ago, when Chinese officials silenced reporting as a deadly pneumonia later known as SARS killed dozens in the south.

The contrast shows a new, though still evolving, openness in China that was learned from the SARS debacle, which devastated the government’s credibility at home and abroad. It also reflects the demands of a more prosperous and educated citizenry for information and its use of social media to get it.

“Publicize information to prevent ‘bird flu panic,’” read the headline of a recent front-page commentary in the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s newspaper, that urged government departments to release information quickly about an outbreak that has killed 10 and sickened 28 others.

Though some microbloggers and media are questioning why it took a couple of weeks after the first deaths for authorities to announce the new strain of bird flu, international health experts have broadly praised China’s response. The government has said that it takes time for scientists to identify the virus.

Since China reported the first human infections of the new bird flu virus, known as H7N9, on March 31, authorities have had to compete with the online rumor mill. They have also responded to demands spread through microblogs.

After some urged an investigation into a potential link to thousands of pig carcasses found floating in a river, agricultural officials said they tested pig carcass samples and did not find any bird viruses. When others said authorities should help pay the medical bills of those affected, health officials said hospitals were not allowed to turn away patients who could not afford treatment.