Thu, May 29, 2003 - Page 5 News List

China's `honest doctor' stays out of media spotlight


Chinese media praise Jiang Yanyong (蔣彥永) as an "honest doctor" and an anti-SARS hero, but he is barred from giving interviews and isn't invited to ceremonies or news conferences.

The 72-year-old military surgeon is credited with breaking government secrecy to reveal the true scale of Beijing's outbreak. That was followed by embarrassing official admissions and the firing of a Cabinet minister.

Jiang took the seemingly unprecedented step in April of violating the silence expected of a Chinese soldier and disclosing in a letter to reporters that Beijing had more than 100 unreported SARS cases.

"His letter was definitely crucial in revealing the facts," said the popular business magazine Caijing.

Praise for Jiang has mounted as reports of new cases of SARS decline. But the government's handling of Jiang shows it is still deeply uncomfortable with whistleblowers -- even those who might save lives.

In a brief phone conversation last week, Jiang said he hasn't been punished for his revelations.

However, he said he's been told not to give interviews without permission from his work unit, the People's Liberation Army No. 301 hospital in Beijing, where he was chief of surgery and still sees patients. The hospital has turned down all such requests from foreign reporters.

Chinese media have made Jiang a minor celebrity. The Web site of the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily said he should be awarded a prize for "services to society." The editorial called Jiang the "honest doctor who led the way in revealing the truth about the outbreak."

Officials have praised some whistleblowers but authorities also fire crusading editors, imprison reporters and try to control the spread of information over the Internet.

Dr. Gao Yaojie, a retired obstetrician, has been harassed since she publicized an AIDS epidemic in central China among villagers infected by an unsanitary blood-buying industry.

It isn't clear why Jiang hasn't been punished -- whether it is official embarrassment or his status as a soldier and Communist Party member.

In Jiang's letter in April to state broadcaster China Central Television and a pro-Beijing Hong Kong television station, Phoenix, the doctor expressed fury at then Health Minister Zhang Wenkang's (張文康) denial that there was any sizable outbreak in Beijing.

Neither station reported Jiang's claims, but the outraged note was later leaked to Time magazine and other foreign media, which reported on it extensively.

Under pressure from WHO to investigate, Beijing responded with an unprecedented reversal.

On April 20, health officials publicly revised numbers of cases in Beijing upward by nearly 1,000 percent. Days later, Zhang was fired, followed by Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong (孟學農).

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