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February 2004

February 1 2004 by Chief Executive

There’s good news and not-so-good news about Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome in southern China.

The Chinese government appears to have successfully prevented a repeat of last year’s epidemic, which virtually shut down trade between China and the United States and hurt many CEOs’ bottom lines. So far this season, only one confirmed case of SARS has been identified. The government has been quick to invite in outside experts and quarantine any suspected cases.

But judging from a recent trip to the squalid animal market in Guangzhou, where the government ordered 10,000 civets exterminated after the World Health Organization determined the catlike animals carry a virus linked to SARS, nothing has changed in the way the Chinese slaughter civets, dogs and other species. Nor do the Chinese appear willing to accept that these practices are the root cause of SARS.

Instead, many were quick to point to the conspiracy theory that SARS is a U.S. biological weapons experiment targeted at the Chinese. “SARS came from the American government,” said one vendor, to a chorus of consensus from shoppers and other sellers gathering around.

They think this because the theory has been circulating in Internet chat rooms for the past year. It died out somewhat when SARS did, but was revived last fall with the publication of The Last Defense Line: Concerns About the Loss of Chinese Genes by Tong Zheng, a business consultant with no medical background. Two major Chinese newspapers-including the Southern Metropolitan Daily in Guangzhou-reported on the theory on their front pages.

The conspiracy theory also has enjoyed the tacit approval of the Beijing government. Media, publishing and Internet chat rooms are monitored and censored, so if the government had wanted to kill the discussion, it could have. Possibly, Beijing might want to let people believe that Americans caused SARS because of its own culpability in the outbreak.

Those who believe the theory are a minority, of course, but they are at the core of a bigger problem. By pointing the finger elsewhere, the southern Chinese can rationalize a refusal to make any lasting changes in their practices. After all, Guangdong province’s economy grew 13.6 percent last year, despite SARS, so why change? But if SARS really was caused by the proximity of humans and animals in unhygienic conditions, the threat of future outbreaks of SARS, and other diseases, definitely remains. -Sheridan Prasso

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