Life in the Time of Plague

In April, the author found himself in the right place at the right—or wrong—time: in China, when its government finally went public with news of epidemic proportions.
Writer: 
August 1, 2003

In Beijing they didn’t say SARS at first.


Feidian is an abbreviation for feidianxing feiyan, a phrase that translates as “atypical pneumonia.” Medically vague, it proved linguistically precise. Life had become “atypical,” and feidian was a neologism that referred as much to a general state of affairs as to a coronavirus. The ambiguity of this situational word gave leeway to amateur pundits: Calls to this restaurant or that gallery, to ask if doors were open, often met with a no. Asking why would garner just a two-word response—“feidian shiqi,” “atypical (i.e., SARS) era.”Before the government admitted that an infectious respiratory disease had come to the capital, it was called feidian. Fei is one of several very ancient characters that negate. In the contemporary language of a newly consumerist society, it has come to work like the alphaprivative, prefixed to words like “smoking” and “local” in the way we use “non.” Dian is short for dianxing, which means “classic” or “typical,” a Mandarin word that feels too close in meaning to its English equivalent to come from a language so foreign. Dianxing is commonly used by ironic intellectuals to disparage things (for example, the Mao posters that once hung on my living-room walls: “This is a dianxing foreigner’s home,” a People’s University grad student said to her friend upon seeing them), and to translate ideas like the “Classic Roast Beef Sandwich” at Sammies, a local chain of Western-style sandwich shops.

The Australian researcher/translator at The New York Times bureau in Beijing had chosen this month to make a long-awaited trip home, and I was hired to fill in for him by bureau chiefs Erik Eckholm and Elisabeth Rosenthal. I started a month-long stint on April 14, a week before the end of the official silence. My second day on the job, I went with Rosenthal to Shunde, Guangdong province, where we interviewed snake and civet mongers in some of the meat markets where the World Health Organization thought the virus might have jumped from animals to humans. That Friday, we were the first foreign journalists to make a SARS-inspired visit to the provincial capital of Taiyuan, snooping around the grounds of the Shanxi Province People’s Hospital that was feared to harbor the first cases.

Then came Easter Sunday: What looked like a routine, if high-level, press conference featuring the minister of health became what many journalists would later refer to as the biggest political shake-up since Tiananmen. The health minister didn’t show up at his own press conference; instead, his deputy revealed the systematic deception of the government’s initial reporting on SARS. Hours later the New China News Agency had posted a two-line item revealing that he and Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong had been asked for their resignation. A decision to face the disease had come down from on high.

For the next three weeks, I spent mornings rendering the state newspapers’ newly voluminous SARS coverage into an executive summary for the bureau’s use—standard practice in most Times foreign bureaus, a way of providing the correspondents with a sense of the day’s news in the local media—and afternoons riding around the capital on the dreaded subway or in the bureau’s white Jeep Cherokee, observing the deserted cityscape and searching for the elusive man on the street.

That press conference sparked a whole series—semi-slick, semi-weekly affairs held before a blue and white background declaring bilingually and tautologically “PRESS CONFERENCE.” City leaders met the press in the tawdry carpeted confines of a ballroom in the International Hotel. The dispatches were emceed by Wang Hui, an austere woman in well-tailored suits, and consistently featured municipal propaganda chieftain Cai Fuchao. With his studiously blow-dried hairdo, Cai was the picture of authoritarian technocrat as game-show host: His 1950s-vintage given name translates “rush to North Korea” (presumably to resist the Americans), and his proclamations, inevitably in strings of punchy, four-character phrases that added just the slightest hint of literary elegance to a well-honed socialist syntax and lexicon, tended to lose their contrived poignancy when rendered by whichever nervous young interpreter was seated to his far right.

In the reforms that quickly swept through the government once officials publicly acknowledged the existence of feidian, Cai’s fiefdom grew more insistent that it be called the “publicity committee”—a change that went on the books several years ago but that foreign reporters still refuse to heed. (One imagines a team of management consultants in a smoky room with city leaders: “You know, ‘propaganda’ is such a harsh word.”) Still, for all the charades, the televised press conferences functioned as town-hall meetings by proxy, bringing with them an unprecedented if vague sensation of political accountability. Beijing watched raptly at 10:00 a.m. most of those Tuesdays and Fridays; I know because the telecast cutaways of which I became a brief fixture were mentioned every time I called a friend or bought a bottle of water. The owner of the commissary in the diplomatic compound where The Times and many other bureaus are housed even said what I would never have presumed: “The foreign reporters are asking the questions we all want to ask.”

In other places, political accountability was less vague. One morning the bureau received a call from an anonymous man about a riot that had happened the night before in his town of Chagugang, a village outside the nearby municipality of Tianjin. We hopped in the bureau’s Jeep immediately, arriving an hour later in a village under martial law. Bureau co-chief Eckholm moved into the back seat with me as Zhou, our driver, pressed on; we hid behind copies of the People’s Daily as we passed several hundred military police and public-security officers, many in riot gear. The Jeep eased through three cordons set up precisely to prevent journalists from entering the town. In spite of dead-giveaway black license plates issued to journalists—similar to diplomatic plates, but without the orange character shi (envoy) that spells immunity—we were not pegged immediately by the police, who were perhaps unfamiliar with Beijing’s vehicle-registration conventions.

I got names and quotes from a few villagers inside a tractor-repair shop before getting back in the car and bolting for Beijing. Being detained by the authorities was a real risk, and I might have faced deportation, as I am not an “accredited” journalist.

The Chagugang villagers told us they had heard that the Tianjin government was planning a SARS containment facility in their midst. Ten thousand people from their town and neighboring villages as far as ten kilometers away had reportedly gathered the night before, gutting the school that was to be converted into a sanatorium and throwing rocks through the windows of the township government. This made page one of The Times. Not surprisingly, it was never picked up in the Chinese press. Though calls I made two weeks later to random numbers in the exchange revealed that thirty-two of the perpetrators were still being detained, the facility, so far, has not been built.

A medical worker between signs that say "SARS Consultation and Monitor Room" at Hankou railway station in Wuhan

A medical worker between signs that say "SARS Consultation and Monitor Room" at Hankou railway station in Wuhan. © reuters newmedia inc. Corbis.

There was a seamy underside to the government and its newfound commitment to the health and well being of its citizenry. It manifested itself not just in the speed with which officials mobilized an urban population of 14 million, but also in the resurgence of Cultural Revolution-era tactics that publicized and ultimately enforced the mobilization. Languishing “neighborhood committees” re-assumed their positions as amateur surveillance units; security guards refused entry into upscale apartment compounds. The barrage of four-character slogans (Chinese slogans, set phrases, and literary references tend to come in multiples of four characters) included calls for solidarity (“in the face of adversity, the unity of the masses is an impregnable fortress”), appeals to science (“depend on science; overcome SARS”), and reminders of Party power (“The SARS [sic] will be conquered by the government and the Communist Party of China”).

More perplexing than banners and slogans were the quirky moments of communist Theater of the Real that inevitably popped up at the press events scheduled by the publicity committee. On a visit to Xiaotangshan, the 1,000-bed SARS hospital in the Beijing suburbs built by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in eight days, workers in contamination suits waddled like Oompa-Loompas, unloading crates of disinfectant and instant noodles before the cameras. At a carefully orchestrated ceremony marking the end of a two-week quarantine on some college dorms that had spawned fourteen cases, a compact older woman in gauze mask and hairnet stood by the soon-to-open fence waving the sort of tiny flag toddlers hold on National Day. Right arm extended, left encumbered with a gaudy bouquet, she reached like Lady Liberty toward her son’s roommates as they called down from their eighth-story window.

A tiny bit of journalistic prodding revealed that she didn’t know the names or majors of the seven students to whom she claimed to have delivered food each day, and that her “son” was still quarantined at some other location that she could not remember. An official came over and reminded her, in a voice really meant for the gathered mass of Chinese journalists, that, “although the quarantine period has ended, the campus will not be open to the public in order to prevent the further spread of SARS.” The woman thanked the official for his wise words, her earnest voice pegging her as a Party plant.

Patrol: policemen in an empty Forbidden City

Patrol: policemen in an empty Forbidden City. © reuters newmedia inc. Corbis.

Theater and sloganry converged in the campaign to worship doctors and nurses. “They can’t help themselves,” I heard Eckholm say one afternoon on the phone with the foreign desk. He was referring to the “Study Comrade Jiang Suchun Movement,” a bizarre homage to the seventy-four-year-old, PLA infectious-disease specialist who was among Beijing’s first SARS sufferers. Papers featured heroic pictures of this man, who recovered in just twenty-four days. On his sickbed, he insisted that his underlings inject him with an experimental treatment of blood serum from recovered patients, and even found time to write nine articles about the epidemic.

Jiang Suchun (not to be confused with Jiang Yanyong, the whistleblower of Time magazine fame) was just one of many doctors and nurses who were honored as “front-line warriors” and “martyrs.” Hospital gates were often crowded with lineups of quarantined medical personnel in masks and gloves receiving flowers and fans (it was hot in those contamination suits, and the hospitals couldn’t use air-conditioning for fear of spreading infected air) from corporations before throngs of CCTV cameramen. One particularly irksome slogan was “Salute the Angels in White Clothing,” featured prominently in the sappy music videos that ran between segments of the all-SARS evening news. For me, the seraphic imagery, spewed from a government with no appetite for or experience with Christianity, revealed the anxiety and insincerity of the entire project.

On the Chinese street, comparisons to September 11 seemed to abound. Columnists wrote elegies to the end of uneventfulness and assurances that “what doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger.” Leaders promised to protect the homeland. Earnest praise for the disaster’s frontline workers—Beijing’s nurses replacing New York’s firefighters—seemed the only way to pluck good from a very bad thing. China, which especially in the months leading up to the war in Iraq had seemed an economically blessed bystander to the machinations of greater powers, was once again central to the global conversation.

More prosaically, our jolly, twenty-something expat world of wannabe journalists and art dealers and paralegals had been served a rebuke. Parents wanted us home. Many, realizing that their exotic, strong-dollar lives were not worth personal risk or the fear they now caused loved ones, obliged. At a few of the intrepid restaurants that remained open, a string of farewell dinners ensued. For a few weeks I was scared, wearing my Times-issued N95 masks on interview trips to train stations and pharmacies. Life had grown surreal, even frightening, as the city’s routine was put on indefinite hold. Left-leaning friends would write from home saying they knew things just couldn’t be as bad as the media were reporting, that there must be people on the streets. But for a few days in late April and early May, there really weren’t.

Rumors flew by e-mail and cell-phone text message: “Don’t go out today, they’re moving patients around”; “in a few days they’re going to shut down the airport, and no one will get out.” Worse than the rumors were real stories of friends, mostly Chinese, who had decided to quarantine themselves, buying large supplies of food and staying in their apartments for weeks at a time. The U.S. embassy sent a circular to Americans living in Beijing with a haunting warning that, once infected, even a golden-eagle passport couldn’t get you a ticket out of town. Even the brave among us were furtively touching their foreheads a few times daily, looking for signs of fever, or having brief moments of panic each time they boarded a taxi and heard the driver cough.

On a few late-night walks through the diplomatic compound, I mentally mapped a SARS evacuation route—through the north gate, up the East Third Ring Road, out the Airport Expressway, to the next U.S.-bound flight. And then I would feel guilty for thinking like that. As much as I was experiencing the same urban hysteria as any native Beijinger, I had a way out that neutralized emotion, even turned it into pretense. This escape route of mine raised big issues of global equity and cultural belonging that would have been at home in Duke freshman seminars with names like “Third World and the West.” Yes, Beijing was as much my city as anywhere I could have moved after graduation. But though I wasn’t going to leave over this, like the Brits in the treaty ports during the Japanese invasion of the late 1930s, I could have.

Sterile: workers spray disinfectant in commuter trains in Shandong Province


Sterile: workers spray disinfectant in commuter trains in Shandong Province
© corbis / saba

One Friday in mid-May, Times gig over, I decided to rebel against the consensus of atypicality that had us all but locked in Beijing. At the urging of a Shanghai-based Duke classmate about to make his SARS-motivated departure, I caught a cab for the airport with my laptop and a toothbrush. I cleared medical security, which consisted of three infrared temperature-taking checkpoints and two forms listing my name and address. I bought a discounted ticket to Shanghai and hopped on an Air China 737—all in blatant disregard of the folk wisdom that I would be quarantined for fourteen days upon arrival. The departure gates at Beijing Capital Airport were as empty as everyone had said they would be: Rows of pink upholstery sat unoccupied and the lone, state-run cafeteria had just one customer. My cell phone was out of minutes, and the pinstriped vendors of refill cards were gone, their blue pressboard counters tucked into alcoves among the newsstands and gift shops.

Onboard I sank, unmasked, into the back issues of The New Yorker and Shucheng (its Mandarin imitator) that are my standard Chinese reading fare. A team of flight attendants in silk scarves and facemasks came by just before descent, asking apologetically to stick a thermometer in my ear. Slightly skeptical of sanitation standards, I asked if the ear-touching attachment was disposable. They replied that only the cellophane coating was and met my skepticism by adding a second layer before measuring my body temperature. As they retreated down the aisle, I heard one chuckle to the other: “We wrapped it twice and look how low it came out—just 34 degrees centigrade!” They scribbled down my 93.2-degree temperature; I deplaned and spent a weekend, fei-feidian, in Shanghai.

Tinari ’01, a former Duke Magazine intern who is just back from two years living and working in Beijing, is a graduate student in East Asian studies at Harvard University.

Philip Tinari ’01

A wonder of the SARS scare was that Shanghai, with its close ties to Hong Kong and Beijing, reported only a few dozen cases. Officials trumpeted the city’s ironclad disinfection regimen. The mood there was a happy counterpoint to the desolation of the capital. Yuppies crowded mega-malls and ate Sichuan hot-pot in droves. The sun shone over traffic snarls, and neon gave light to hordes of midnight bar-goers. SARS was bad, but it would be over. This society, though fundamentally shaken, was not fundamentally altered. And regardless, despite two years of study and work in its midst, it was not mine. A few weeks would go by, and things would be largely back to normal. Another few weeks would go by, and I would get on a plane and go home, for good.