YANGZHOU, CHUZHOU and CHENZHOU, China -
Having learned a bitter lesson from covering up
the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)
epidemic in early 2003, the central government of
China now is said to be taking a more positive,
responsible attitude in dealing with avian
influenza, or bird flu. But that hasn't filtered
down to the provinces.
market economy has taken root in China, the country
has become increasingly decentralized. Because
of this, Beijing's tough orders regarding
the prevention of a bird-flu outbreak may not
necessarily be carried out at all levels.
Overwhelmingly concerned with economic growth,
some local officials still tend to cover up any
outbreak of bird flu, defying Beijing's order to
report new cases immediately.
punished some local officials for their
dealing with bird-flu
outbreaks. For instance, in May it was announced
that five officials in Dazhu county in Sichuan
province had been sacked for of dereliction of
duty because they did not report and contain the
local outbreak in time.
during an investigative reporting trip to three
locations in China, Asia Times Online found that
in rural areas, local officials and residents
really don't like any action that might expose a
possible bird-flu outbreak, fearing the damage it would do
to the economy. Because of this, they
hate individuals who dare to inform authorities of
any bird-flu case.
Qiao Songju, a resident
of Gaoyou county in Jiangsu province, attained
a brief heroic reputation for informing
authorities of a massive bird-flu outbreak in Anhui province
last October. Tipped by Qiao, the Ministry of
Agriculture confirmed the outbreak of the deadly
H5N1 bird flu among geese and chicken in Liangying
village of Chuzhou city.
gained overnight fame as the first informer of a bird-flu
outbreak. But his joy did not last long. One month
later, Gaoyou police paid a midnight visit to
Qiao's home and "invited" him to the station for a
"chat", which turned out to be the prologue to
detention. The next day, Qiao was arrested on
suspected fraud and blackmail activities. His
arrest happened two days after he attempted to
report another bird flu outbreak - this time in
his own hometown. His arrest made headlines.
On condition of anonymity, a Gaoyou police
officer told ATol that they had to arrest Qiao
because he was suspected of being involved in
illegal production of vaccines for chicken. But
observers pointed out that the timing of Qiao's
arrest suggested it was hardly coincidental. Many
believed he was being framed. The Guangzhou-based
and often outspoken South Metropolis News pointed
out Qiao's arrest took place when he was preparing
to expose the bird flu outbreak in Gaoyou.
Qiao was tried on April 21 and on April
26. The court has yet to hand down a verdict. In
China, it is rare for such a case to be tried
twice without a court ruling. Analysts said it was
likely that the central government intervened, so
the case now seems to be moving to Qiao's
"It is beyond comprehension why
the onetime hero was arrested on fabricated
charges at such a time," said Qiao's lawyer,
Kong Weizhao, denying that his client was guilty
of the charges.
When ATol interviewed Kong
in April, the lawyer lamented that all officials
who could help Qiao's defense had refused to give
testimony. When the lawyer went all the way to the
Ministry of Agriculture in Beijing, even those
officials were reluctant to testify. Ever
since Qiao was detained, many domestic news media
have tried to contact the Ministry of Agriculture
on whether it would provide a crucial witness for
the defense. However, the ministry declined any
interview and would not comment on whether Qiao
had served as an informant for the ministry.
Chen Linxiang, an official with Gaoyou's
Agriculture and Forestry Bureau, made it explicit,
"Qiao Songju is a sinner to all Gaoyou farmers."
to wide coverage of Qiao, the poultry
market in Gaoyou has slumped. "The price of
eggs has dropped from 3 yuan [37 US cents] to 1
or 2 yuan per 500 grams, chicken prices are also
down from 5 yuan to 2 yuan for half a kilo, even
below the raising cost," Chen noted. "So no one
wants to raise chickens now, even though chicks
Now, the local government is
considering various incentives, mainly allowances,
to subsidize poultry farmers and revive the their
Near the Jiangsu
provincial capital Nanjing, Gaoyou abounds in
geese and ducks. Poultry and eggs provide almost
the entire gross domestic product (GDP) to Gaoyou.
For the locals, an outbreak of bird flu there
could mean the end of the world.
outbreak in Tianchang More than half
a year has passed since the bird-flu epidemic in
Tianchang city, Anhui province, was exposed to the
outside world. A recent visit by ATol found
residents there still eager to see their hated
local informer turned into a criminal defendant,
while little attention has been paid to prevention
of a possible return of the epidemic.
Ducklings and goslings roamed all over
Liangying village, showing that no one was paying
attention to the Animal Epidemic Prevention Law.
Among other things, the law stipulates a six-month
ban on breeding poultry after an outbreak, and the
current ban only expired on May 24. "We started
raising poultry after the Chinese New Year, and
village leaders never stop us," a local farmer
The poultry population of Liangying
village and the surrounding area is growing again,
and some households even raise birds, dogs and
lambs together, despite warnings to separate them
to prevent cross-breeding of diseases between
various kinds of livestock. "We're poor, and
raising poultry is the only way to enrich our
tables and honor guests," an elderly farmer said,
herding a gaggle in the fields.
these words and scenes reveal a complete and
willful ignorance of basic precautions against a
possible revival of bird flu, as well as a deadly
apathetic attitude toward epidemic prevention that is
shared by the local authorities and residents alike.
To the local farmers in Tianchang, Qiao
was just a "bad guy". Because of his tip-off, the
government decided to destroy all reared poultry
in the neighborhood, but the state compensation
did not suffice to cover the colossal loss. This
seething resentment against Qiao even extends to
his his fellows from Gaoyou. "Gaoyou guys dare not
come here to trade anymore. They are afraid we
will beat them up," grinned a local Tianchang
An unreported death in
Chenzhou The death of Li Juhua, a female farmer
in Chenzhou, has not been reported by the Chinese
media. Yet a lot of fanfare was extended to her
son, six-year-old Junior Ouyang, who is to date
the youngest person to catch bird flu in China,
according to official records. Junior Ouyang has
recovered and been discharged from hospital.
To Ouyang Xihua, now the widower, so many
questions are unanswered. He is certain that his
late wife and the boy showed the same symptoms,
and that was why he wasted no time rushing the son
to hospital in Changsha, Hunan's provincial
capital, after his wife died. Yet he fails to
understand why the diagnoses were so different.
He cannot understand either why, when the
media of the whole country were enthusiastically
reporting the progress of his little son, not a
single word had been given to the son's ill-fated
mother. The bereaved family lives in rural
Guiyang, a county under Chenzhou city. With his
wife gone, widower Ouyang Xihua is now a single
parent taking care of a pair of twins.
Last December 21, the family had dinner to
celebrate the winter solstice. They were not rich
enough to kill a live bird and could afford only
dead chickens dumped by owners, which the poor
collect and preserve for festivals.
wife, Li Juhua, soon felt sick and was taken to
the county hospital on December 23. At that
moment, a grisly thought occurred to Ouyang that
his wife might have been infected with bird flu, as
he had watched news of the epidemic on television.
Yet none of the doctors heeded his fears. Li died
the next day, to which the hospital only gave a
single-sentence explanation citing some rare
A few days later,
the son developed the same symptoms as his
deceased mother. At the county hospital, the
diagnosis given was tuberculosis. Ouyang dared not
take a chance with the county hospital again and
took the little boy to a hospital in Chenzhou,
where the medical staff were concerned and
referred the child to Changsha. There his
affliction was finally diagnosed as bird flu
"It is all due to that damned
plagued chicken!" moaned Ouyang.
It is odd
that Li, with bird-flu-like symptoms, did not
attract the attention of Guiyang county hospital,
nor did she have the chance to receive the
treatment that her son later got to survive.
Under current regulations, all local-level
medical institutions must report immediately to
the Ministry of Health any discovery of human
infection of bird flu, and patients suspected of
infection must be given virus tests and treatment
In a sense, the mother gave
up her life to save the child. Her quick demise
fortified her husband's belief that the sickness
was no small thing and should not be allowed to
stay in the hands of irresponsible county
Doctors in the provincial
capital eventually cured Junior Ouyang. But in the
official announcement of his survival, not a
single word was mentioned about the infection of
his departed mother.
According to a notice
published by the Ministry of Health, on
discovering the infection, local medical
authorities should waste no time in taking
preventive measures, giving appropriate treatment
and necessary observation to the patient and
whoever was in close contact with that patient.
When Junior Ouyang was making a steady
recovery, reporters from across the country waited
outside his segregated ward. There was once even a
real-time online videotaping of his medication.
The child was said to be happy, despite the fact
that he had already lost his mother.
the child's discharge, the Ministry of Health
issued a statement saying no one in close contact
with Junior Ouyang had developed unusual
conditions. Again, it skipped the crucial fact
that Junior Ouyang and his mother had been living
together before death broke them apart. Or did the
ministry take the mother's demise as nothing
In answering questions from ATol,
a spokesman of Guiyang county hospital said he did
not have detailed information about Li's case and
refused to comment on why the case was not
reported to higher authorities or why it could not
be diagnosed as bird flu when it was so obvious.
Throughout the three months the ATol
correspondent roamed among infested provinces, a
lot of coverups were detected. This case of
covering up a human death closely related to avian
flu was, however, the most repugnant.
Xu Xiang is a Chinese
correspondent for the Chinese edition of Asia