Quotes of the Day

Sunday, Dec. 21, 2003

Open quoteBecause he risked his career, reputation and personal safety to stem the spread of SARS—both in China and worldwide—surgeon and Communist Party member Jiang Yanyong is Time's Asian Newsmaker. In a bold letter to the media, he blew the whistle on the Chinese government's efforts to keep secret the spread of this dread new disease

To get by in China, a citizen learns to adjust to the gulf between the truth and the official truth. Officially, China is a "People's Republic" that puts the worker first. Officially, China respects human rights. Officially, China's media report the news freely. Those who call attention to the gulf between these official truths and the unhappy reality are labeled confused, unpatriotic or evil—because, officially, no gulf exists.

Jiang Yanyong, a nationally renowned surgeon, Communist Party member and People's Liberation Army veteran, understood this arrangement well. But in early April, after having more or less ignored the contradictions for 72 years, the doctor decided to break the rules. The official truth of the moment was that the emergence of SARS—the frightening virus responsible for Asia's gravest health crisis in recent memory—did not endanger the 14 million residents of Beijing. China's Health Minister, Zhang Wenkang, gave an April 3 press conference on national television assuring the world that Beijing had but a handful of SARS cases, and inviting foreigners to visit the capital for business and pleasure. Jiang, who had spent much of that day talking to his colleagues and former medical students about the alarming spread of SARS in their Beijing hospitals, watched the broadcast in disbelief—and then resolved to write a letter to the media exposing the official truth as, in this case, a deadly lie. "I felt I had to reveal what was happening," he has said in the past, "not just to save China, but to save the world."

Jiang's letter contested the official number of SARS cases. It reported that health workers at military hospitals had been ordered by their superiors to keep the disease a secret. And it gave several examples of how and when, despite official assurances to the contrary, SARS had been transmitted in Beijing, as opposed to just being imported from elsewhere in the country. But as important as the content of his letter was, it was one simple line of text at the top of the page that really mattered—Jiang had included his full name and phone number. Anonymously challenging official truths in China is commonplace. But to openly dispute official information can mean risking career, reputation, even personal safety. Jiang ignored these risks because he feared for the lives of others. "As a doctor," he wrote in his letter, "I have a responsibility to aid international and local efforts to prevent the spread of SARS."

TIME published Jiang's letter on its website on April 8. Over the course of the next two weeks, Jiang's revelations would radically alter the way the world and then the Chinese government responded to the illness. The World Health Organization raised Jiang's allegations with Chinese leaders and issued a travel advisory warning foreigners not to go to certain parts of China. Other doctors at Beijing's hospitals came forward (though on condition of anonymity) to corroborate and elaborate the details of Jiang's letter, and later to describe how SARS patients had been deliberately hidden from WHO inspectors. On April 20, Beijing dramatically raised its official count of cases from 37 to 339, and fired both Health Minister Zhang and the mayor of Beijing. The next day, it began a massive campaign to alert the nation to the dangers of the illness and launched a system of monitoring and prevention that would ultimately succeed in ending human transmission of SARS.

China's leaders emerged from the crisis with their authority intact and praise for acting quickly to curtail the outbreak. But if not for the courage of one aging physician, the government might not have been forced to deal forthrightly with the disease. Dr. Jiang Yanyong deserves as much credit as any official or physician or scientist for stemming the spread of SARS—and for understanding that only the truth could save lives. Close quote

  • Susan Jakes | Beijing
  • The doctor who blew the whistle on China's SARS epidemic
| Source: The doctor who blew the whistle on China's SARS epidemic