Liz Carter senior contributor

As Avian Flu Death Toll Rises, Online Cynicism in China Grows

(via Bigstockphoto)

Chinese authorities have confirmed 14 cases of humans infected with bird flu, and of those, 5 have already died. It’s no surprise, then, that “bird flu” and “H7N9” have been trending on Chinese social media sites. Internet users are taking to social media to spread information about preventative measures, the latest news about confirmed infections, and speculation about as-yet unreported cases.

As of today, the most retweeted post on Weibo, a top Chinese social media site, was an email allegedly written by the CEO of 360buy.com, a top electronics e-commerce retailer, to his employees. CEO Liu Qiangdong wrote in the putative letter:

“Four additional cases have been reported in Jiangsu, and what is more terrifying is that these four people had no contact with each other. What that means is that we don’t know how to treat it and we don’t know how it’s being transmitted. In order to ensure the safety of our colleagues, I am requiring that employees in all regions take action to protect everyone.”

Liu then listed 11 preventative measures to be carried out company-wide, including removing chicken and pork from work cafeterias, cancelling all non-urgent business trips, and urging employees to speak with suppliers and business partners by phone or email rather than in person. Wrapping up the email, he wrote, “Brothers, this is a battle! Everyone must take this seriously, and act! Protect yourself, your colleagues, and our families!”

Weibo user @大卫29_45177 shared this recent image, complete with a reference to the Alfred Hitchcock horror classic “The Birds.” (Via Weibo)

The Weibo user who leaked Liu’s email commented, “This letter is truly heartfelt and meaningful; it’s enough to put many leaders to shame.” Chinese are indeed wary of how their leaders and authorities will handle the bird flu, many recalling the SARS cover-up a decade earlier, and worrying that history may repeat itself. Nanjing authorities confirmed a case of bird flu in the city after a hospital document was leaked online, causing many to wonder what else has not yet been reported.

Authorities have acted quickly, however, in some respects. Shanghai and Jiangsu have issued alerts, and state-run media has taken to social media sites to issue up-to-the-minute reports on confirmed cases, including three additional cases in Shanghai, including a 4-year-old child, confirmed as of 9:00 PM China time, April 4. This brings the total number of cases to 14.

However, some official reactions have drawn scorn from netizens. Many mocked Jiangsu’s Department of Health for issuing a statement claiming that Chinese herbal medicine banlangen could prevent H7N9. The medicine was formerly touted as a preventative measure for SARS and swine flu, despite a lack of scientific evidence to that effect. Commented one Weibo user, “Maybe their relatives sell banlangen.Another wrote, “We haven’t even figured out how the virus mutated, or how it is transmitted, but you’re selling a preventative medicine?”

Facing a potential epidemic, information about the spread of the disease is highly sensitive. Public security officials have already arrested a man who allegedly falsely claimed that two people had contracted bird flu in Quanzhou, Fujian province.  At the same time, bird flu is one of the most popular topics on social media, with netizens continuing to share information and rumor alike.

Social media has changed the way many Chinese handle this kind of situation and its ramifications. As evidenced by reactions to Liu Qiangdong’s letter and the information leak in Nanjing, more and more people are demanding that authorities take responsibility for issues like this, which affect both public health and social order.

Chatter online shows that many netizens cynically suspect that the government’s main objective is not to release information about the disease, but to quell potential sources of unrest and disorder. Yet many Chinese now reject the idea that censorship is an appropriate way to promote order. As Shanghai journalist Xuan Kejiong wrote, “In the face of an outbreak, we must be professional before we can be rational; we must be open before we can be calm.”

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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.
  • http://www.weibowatcher.com/ WeiboWatcher.com

    It seems so obvious that hiding information is the most counter-productive way of effectively and efficiently solving problems; yet, that is what so often happens here in China. Let’s hope this flu strain doesn’t turn out to be the plague it could will develop into, and that the system of governance is further improved so that future cases are met with more openess and less conjecture.