It takes a lot of chutzpah to derail a press conference anywhere, let alone China. This is for the obvious reasons (gulag, inprisonment, execution, torture, etc.).
But yesterday, such a derailment happened. And in so doing, it became a metaphor for both China's dilemma in dealing with the H7N9 outbreak, as well as dealing with the emerging attitudes of its people.
A person who I know and brought in to speak at an IT conference a few years ago is Thomas P.M. Barnett. Barnett is the author of The Pentagon's New Map, which is a great book about how the United States must change how it goes about nation-building. As if we have had any lasting success at doing that since World War II. Anyway, Thomas has traveled to China, and told me they are engaged in "rampant Capitalism." He also predicted that in twenty years, China would no longer be a Communist nation. He said this back in 2006.
When one looks at the Chinese government's emerging attitudes regarding transparency, first during SARS and now during H7N9, I see the emerging signs of which Mr. Barnett spoke. Another is the emergence of Chinese Twitter-wanna-be site Weibo, and how that site is rapidly changing Chinese citizens' ability to share information. Simply put, the combination of Capitalism, Direct Foreign Investment, along with the Internet and Chinese homegrown social media, are all conspiring to radically alter the political landscape of China.
So it is in this light that I read of the derailment of an official Shanghai H7N9 press conference by the 26-year-old daughter of two bird flu victims. Her simple questions have also focused attention on the second suspected cluster of human-to-human transmission of H7N9 since the outbreak began in late February.
The article was posted in the Chinese newspaper The South China Morning Post.
Officials were going about their statements when a question was taken from the floor. The 26-year-old daughter of the second suspected family cluster of H7N9 asked why local public health officials were not being more transparent with her about her father's condition. Her mother had already perished from confirmed H7N9, and her father was still in a special unit, being administered to.
Some snippets from the newspaper article:
"The hospitals and medical staff appear friendly to members of the media like you but have responded in a lukewarm manner to inquiries from family members like me," the 26-year-old, who would only identify herself as Gu, told the South China Morning Post. "I wanted to ask the senior officials about my father's condition and thought the press conference would provide a good opportunity."
She was picked by city government spokesman Xu Wei to ask a question, but was interrupted by him after she identified herself as the daughter of patients in another confirmed family cluster of H7N9 cases in Shanghai.
She had hoped to question Wu Fan, director of the Shanghai Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, but was not allowed to speak.
"I am awfully worried because my father was said to be in critical condition," she said. "I hoped to ask director Wu what family members could do to help in the treatment."
Her mother died of the new strain of bird flu on April 3, and her father was confirmed to have been infected by the same virus on April 13. The daughter, who is studying abroad, has not seen her father since she returned to Shanghai on April 4.
He is now in quarantine and being treated at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre in the city's suburban Jinshan district.
The woman was taken away by officials after she spoke to reporters following the press conference.
She said Wu had promised to give her a reply after checking with the medical staff in charge of her father's treatment.
State leaders including President Xi Jinping have pledged to enhance transparency in the release of information about the H7N9 outbreak.
In Shanghai, the city government has been praised by the media for promptly releasing of H7N9-related information, but several family members of patients have complained that hospitals and doctors have tried to cover up cases. (bold mine)
I feel sorry for city government spokesman Xu Wei. He is probably the spokesman for some Chinese re-education camp today. I doubt he had time to pack. And I hope the daughter is being treated fairly.
Bottom line: There's detectable frustration in Shanghai regarding how patients are faring. Shanghai residents also feel that there is some serious covering-up going on, and in truth, there may be. Clearly, the foreign press is getting the information, but the family members of the dead and sick feel they are not.