Gainsayed epidemic in Shandong underscores challenges facing information openness in China

China’s official Xinhua News Agency stepped up yesterday to deny “rumors” that an outbreak of unknown “hand-foot-mouth” disease had struck Shandong province, affecting scores of young children. News and information on the disease, first reported by commercial media on May 11 after rumors swept across the Internet, is now the center of debate over China’s recently publicized national ordinance on information release, which will include public health information under its mandate when it takes effect in 2008.

An editorial in today’s Yanxi Metropolitan Daily (燕赵都市报), a commercial newspaper under the umbrella of the official Hebei Daily, argued that opening up the media, rather than “simply directing or suppressing them”, would be key to ensuring accurate public health information reached the public in a timely manner, preventing widespread panic and social instability. The argument was reminiscent of the debate that followed revelations in 2003 of the government cover-up of SARS, which many see as a seminal moment in awareness of the need for information openness in China.

The Yanxi Metropolitan Daily editorial also argues that it is not enough for the government to release information, but that officials need to create “public confidence” in the accuracy of the information they release. This, too, will require the concerted effort of government offices and the media, the author says.

The Yanxi Metropolitan Daily editorial follows in full:

Linyi Affair Tests Capacity to Release Government Information
Yanxi Metropolitan Daily
May 14, 2007
By Yang Tao (杨涛)

PULLOUT: “As governments at various levels [of the bureaucracy] pay particular attention to openness of information (信息公开), they must determinedly look into how to raise public confidence in government information. An important part of this is opening up the media, relying on the media, rather than simply directing and suppressing them.”

Beginning in April, about 80 infants and toddlers were infected with an unknown disease in Shandong’s Linyi [a city in the south of the province, about 100 kilometers from Jiangsu Province], with infections most common in children under three years old. In the majority of cases of those infected, ulcers appeared on the hands, feet and mouth along with high fevers. According to information released by the Linyi government, this illness was hand-foot-mouth (手足口病) disease. Up to now, only one death on April 29 has resulted from this illness. But as journalists looked into the case they found discrepancies in information coming from various directions (Shanghai Morning Post, May 13). Information released on May 12 on the official Website of the Shandong provincial health office (山东省卫生厅) said media reports on May 11 claiming that an “unknown disease had claimed the lives of many children in Shandong’s Linyi” were false.

On April 5 the national ordinance on release of government information (中华人民共和国政府信息公开条例) was formally announced, to take effect on May 1 of next year. This sudden-breaking news event in Shandong’s Linyi is the first sudden-breaking public health incident of influence since the Ordinance was announced. [The question of] whether things can be adequately handled according to the principles of the Ordinance, whether or not the local government can issue timely information, and government information with the necessary public confidence, tests the ability of the local government [to live up to the obligations of information openness], and is of great significance.

According to the national ordinance on release of government information, administrative organs must release “any information concerning the vital interests of citizens, legal persons or other organizations, or which requires the broad participation or knowledge of the society and the public.” The ordinance also says that “state organs should release government information in a timely and accurate manner. In cases where State organs discover false or incomplete information influencing social stability or disturbing social order (扰乱社会管理秩序), they should release accurate government information within the scope of their duties” [Article 6]. Looking at the Linyi case, the government did release information and notified the media in a timely fashion, but there was still a definite lag. The first case was discovered on April 27, and terrifying rumors surfaced on the Web on May 7 about the appearance of an unknown disease. And yet, it was only on May 10, through [the official] Linyi Daily and Linmeng Evening Post that the “epidemic response” article called “Urgently Preventing Hand-Foot-Mouth Disease” was disseminated. At this point there was still no information available to society at large answering the rumors that were circulating. It was only after May 11, when a substantial number of print media began running news that an “unknown disease had claimed the lives of many children in Shandong’s Linyi”, that relevant government authorities formally released accurate information about this incident. By this point rumors had already spread panic among the public.

If the Linyi affair is seen as a preliminary exercise before formal implementation of the National Ordinance on Release of Government Information, well then, governments at various levels [of the bureaucracy] should take profound notice that: creating a “transparent government”, winning the confidence of the public, and eliminating and mitigating factors of social instability, require that passivity become initiative, that [governments] more keenly observe sudden-breaking public incidents, that they pay more concern to the dynamics of society, and release government information in a timely and accurate manner.

Whether or not state offices can release timely and accurate information is one thing, but whether this information meets with public confidence is another aspect of the problem. The latter is a question the Ordinance rarely gets into, but nevertheless a critical question for governments at various levels as they carry out the task of information release. In the Linyi affair, the local government of Linyi has already carried out release of information, and the provincial health office of Shandong has also publicly “staved off rumors”. Indeed, the incident has become a high priority for the Ministry of Health, which has demanded the rumors be “staved off” as quickly as immediately. However, looking at the investigations of the Shanghai Morning Post reporter, it’s clear that a number of circumstances [surrounding the incident] remain points of mistrust among the public. Moreover, the earliest reports … came from Chongqing Morning Post and various media outside the province and local media did no reporting on the incident. This does not tally with the fact that local reporters should be more familiar with the situation and be able to quickly and accurately follow up local news. All of this potentially lowers the degree of believability government information has in the eyes of the public, and creates prime conditions for the spread of rumors, making the government’s work of “staving off rumors” even tougher.

Therefore, as governments at various levels focus attention on openness of information, they must look determinedly at the problem of how to raise public confidence in government information. An important point here is the need to open up the media and rely on the media, not simply directing or suppressing the media. Local media need to be encouraged to participate more in the reporting of sudden-breaking news events, and outside media must be welcomed and encouraged to carry out “supervision by public opinion” [or "watchdog journalism"]. Only with free and open reporting by the media can falsehoods be eliminated and truths retained (去伪存真), and only then will public confidence and support for government information be substantially strengthened. This, in turn, will bolster the authority of the government and mitigate factors of instability in society.

I am confident that by striving together, the government and media can get a clear picture of the truth about the affair in Shangdong’s Linyi. But what is more important is that governments at various levels draw lessons from this case that can be applied in the future (举一反三), raising their capacity for information openness and ushering in the age of “transparent governance”!

MORE SOURCES:
False Epidemic Outbreak Rumors Refuted“, China Daily (Xinhua), May 13, 2007
Girl Dies from Hand-Foot-Mouth Disease“, China Daily (Xinhua), May 12, 2007

[Posted by David Bandurski, May 14, 2007, 1:39pm]

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