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Friday, May 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

China and SARS: the price of shame

Special to The Times

For so many days, most China-related news stories have been about SARS. They brought me to tears, and left me sad, frustrated and embarrassed.

Besides worrying about my family there, the business my friends and I have been involved in there, even China's economic future, I feel more deeply the sting of criticism over the initial coverup of the epidemic. Because I know why the Chinese government tried to cover up the outbreak and even hide patients as it did.

Most American newspaper editorials and opinion columns have attributed the secrecy over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) to the Chinese Communist Party's authoritarian control of the media.

They mentioned the coverup of information after Tiananmen Square in 1989, or the coverup of millions starving after the failed Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s. They compared SARS in China to the Chernobyl coverup by the Soviet Union in 1986.

But the practice is not just communist, it is also Chinese.

As Boston Globe journalist Indira A.R. Lakshmanan wisely wrote this month, "Even before the communist revolution, Beijing's notion of sovereignty bred secrecy on the principle that outsiders had no right to know of any embarrassing problems."

But Lakshmanan stopped there, just short of touching the cultural aspect of this problem.

The Vienna-based International Press Institute, in a protest letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, pointed out that it was the Chinese government's "culture of secrecy" that led to the failure to provide accurate data on the spread of SARS.

The institute was right. It was a culture of secrecy. But it was not just the culture of the Chinese government; it is also the culture of the Chinese. It is a culture of face, or saving face, not losing face.

Every ethnic Chinese who speaks the language probably knows or has been told by his or her parents of this age-old saying, "Jia chou bu ke wai yang — Family shame should not be made public."

It is this old Chinese consciousness of shame, plus the communist and authoritarian control, that has developed into the practice of covering up bad news for several decades, including most recently over SARS.

Besides the famine in China in the early '60s, it was the consciousness of shame that prevented the Chinese government from allowing foreign journalists and international organizations to inspect the ruins of the Tangshan earthquake, dubbed the deadliest of the 20th century, that killed over 200,000 people in 1976. It was with the same consciousness of shame that the Chinese government moved some people into better housing temporarily in the '70s, just so their visiting overseas relatives would not see the shabby holes these people really lived in.

It was, of course, because of shame that the Chinese government in the early years of reform restricted foreign journalists and tourists from various cities in China because many were simply too poor to be seen by outsiders. And it is with this same consciousness of shame that a Chinese individual or family would not let others know that there are problems, from money to marriage, or would hide the problems for years.

But now in the age of modernization and globalization, this old mindset of covering up one's problems to save face is not only outdated, it is also harmful, as the SARS tragedy has shown to our highly integrated world community.

By trying to save face, the Chinese government has actually lost face on a large scale, not only in lives and international trust lost, but also in terms of the pride of all Chinese.

As author Orville Schell said, China's leaders are "slowly getting the message that you can't opt out (of globalization) once you're in."

I sincerely hope he is right and that the new leadership in China has gotten the message and realizes now that with globalization, we are all in this together. No one is in isolation. No one should be helpless. All progress is shared. All problems are linked as well.

A better way to save China's face is not to cover up, but to own up, open up, be transparent, and become a responsible, then respectable, member of the world community.

Wendy Liu is an independent China business consultant and translator living in Federal Way.

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