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Chinese citizens react coolly to swine flu as Beijing sweats foreign visitors

By 5 June 2009 2 Comments

Photo by Kelly West

Look Ma, no bio-masks: Subway riders in Beijing exhibit lack of concern for the H1N1 virus | Photo by Kelly West

“This H1N1 virus isn’t really a big threat,” said Yang Li Na, a young Beijing mother. “You just need to wash your hands.”

Compared to neighboring Japan and Taiwan, where many residents wear facemasks in public and school trips have been cancelled, the Chinese public reaction to the H1N1 epidemic is decidedly relaxed.

The Chinese government has been criticized internationally for an over-zealous quarantine-and-shame response to the H1N1 epidemic, yet Yang has been comforted by officials’ much-publicized efforts to contain the spread. Standing in line at a KFC in Beijing, with her little girl, Ruo Ping, tugging at her leg, Yang said she wasn’t worried about her daughter getting H1N1.

“I’m getting all of my information from TV and it seems to be not very scary,” Yang said.

China has yet to be hit hard by the H1N1 flu epidemic – also known as swine flu – but case numbers are steadily rising.

Sixty-one H1N1 flu cases with no deaths had been confirmed in mainland China as of June 5th, all but one coming from those that traveled from North America, according to Xinhua, the Chinese government news service. As a comparison, 385 cases have been reported in Japan, and 14 in Taiwan. In Beijing alone, 15 cases have been identified.

The public relations aspect of the H1N1 epidemic has left the Chinese government with a dilemma. In 2003, Chinese authorities were criticized by international health experts for responding slowly and secretively to the SARS epidemic, which ended up claiming over 700 lives worldwide.

In early May, China found itself in the spotlight yet again for its dramatic reaction to the H1N1 virus. In most cases, airplane passengers get their temperature taken as routine procedure, but in one instance Mexican citizens who hadn’t been to their home countries in months were subjected to the same quarantine measures as their newly arrived countrymen, provoking Mexican president Felipe Calderon to publicly denounce governments that were “acting out of ignorance and disinformation” and taking “repressive, discriminatory measures,” according to a report in The New York Times on May 5. Many press reports speculated that China was trying to compensate for their poor SARS performance.

Whatever the motivation, for the local population, lessons learned from the SARS outbreak are appreciated. CCTV, China’s national television station and the country’s largest national network, now regularly reports newly identified cases along with prevention information.

The public is well aware that this time, unlike with Asian-born SARS, the cases are coming from abroad. This, along with the low case numbers in China, appear to lead many into thinking that the Chinese are immune.

“It’s only the foreigners who get H1N1,” said Huang Nian Zhang, Beijing bicycle mechanic in his fifties. “There’s no risk to the Chinese.”

Also contributing to the public’s apparent ease is the fact that the H1N1 flu symptoms pack a relatively light punch compared to the deathly specter of SARS.

“SARS was so bad,” said Chen Zhang, a recent graduate from the Beijing Qi Lu Musical School. “So many people were sick and died.”

Zhang, 21, said that his mother – a doctor in his native Xian province – has stepped up her daily check-in phone calls. Yet compared to SARS, when the streets of Beijing were virtually empty, the H1N1 flu event is “no big deal.”

The exception to this calm in the face of this potential swine flu storm are Chinese who come into contact with foreigners, especially those from North America.

“I was totally freaked out,” said Zhang Liang, an interpreter for CET Academic Programs, a Washington D.C.-based study abroad organization. As H1N1 flu cases spread from Mexico to the United States to China, he thought about his imminent assignment to interpret for a group of University of Texas journalism students (of which this reporter is one), arriving at the end of May.

After learning more about the disease from the internet and the TV news, however, Zhang decided his risk of infection would be minimal, and he met the students the day they arrived. One of his fellow translators chose to wait 72 hours before joining the group, just in case.

Chinese with only fleeting contact with foreigners were also wary. UT students reported difficulty interviewing subjects who were afraid of catching H1N1.

“I tried to go into a mahjong parlor to interview an 80-year old woman,” said Simrat Sharma, a 20-year-old multimedia journalism major at the University of Texas at Austin.  “The lady was willing but the owner was afraid that she was too old to take the risk, so he shooed her away.”

So far the government’s containment efforts seem to be paying off. As cases increase, and now that the first Chinese-to-Chinese infection was reported on May 29th, it remains to be seen if people’s relaxed it’s-only-the-foreigners attitude will continue to contrast so sharply with the government’s quarantine-first-ask-questions-later posture toward visitors to China.


  • Jessie Patton-Levine said:

    Very interesting and a good read. Thanks Caitlin!

  • Carol said:

    I was in Japan late May and about one-third of the residents wore facemasks and if you saw groups of school age children, they all wore facemasks. Its interesting to compare this with the attitudes in China about the H1N1 virus. Thanks for covering this story!

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