The Virus Hunters

When the deadly SARS virus struck China three years ago, Beijing responded with a massive coverup. If it weren’t for the persistence of two young reporters and one doctor who had seen enough, SARS might have killed thousands more. There's no guarantee the world will be so lucky next time.

In April 2003, as thousands of Chinese were infected and the dying were quarantined in squalid hospital wards, the Chinese government covered up the SARS outbreak, allowing the killer virus to spread around the world. That was hardly surprising. The first response to an epidemic is usually denial. From the perspective of a head of state, a mayor, a governor, or any ruling body, infectious disease remains among the hardest issues to manage. There is almost no calamity, save starvation or siege, that can so quickly reduce a city to panic and despair. Why should China’s mandarins behave any differently? When confronted with a new infectious disease caused by the SARS virus, they initially downplayed the danger and assumed a tacit policy of wishing the microbe back into whatever species from which it had jumped. What did they really have to go on at first?

In April 2003, as thousands of Chinese were infected and the dying were quarantined in squalid hospital wards, the Chinese government covered up the SARS outbreak, allowing the killer virus to spread around the world. That was hardly surprising. The first response to an epidemic is usually denial. From the perspective of a head of state, a mayor, a governor, or any ruling body, infectious disease remains among the hardest issues to manage. There is almost no calamity, save starvation or siege, that can so quickly reduce a city to panic and despair. Why should China’s mandarins behave any differently? When confronted with a new infectious disease caused by the SARS virus, they initially downplayed the danger and assumed a tacit policy of wishing the microbe back into whatever species from which it had jumped. What did they really have to go on at first?

A few hundred cases? In a nation of more than a billion? Indeed, with infectious disease outbreaks a far more common occurrence in China than in, say, the United States, it is on one level understandable how China’s minister of health, Zhang Wenkang, could have initially downplayed the threat posed by a respiratory infection thousands of miles from the capital. If it hadn’t jumped international borders, then the outbreak might have remained a minor medical curiosity.

Yet the SARS epidemic of 2003 now appears a useful blueprint of how the next pandemic might begin. As the planet struggles to deflect another imminent viral emergence, the lessons learned from SARS are more relevant than ever. Although the work of virologists, physicians, nurses, and public health officials was instrumental in beating back the virus, it is frightening to consider that if it weren’t for the courage of one iconoclastic Chinese physician who came forward to tell the truth at enormous personal risk, the SARS epidemic would have been even more devastating.


Hong Kong was among the first major cities hit hard, with more than 1,000 infected and dozens dead by early April. Yet there was also growing awareness among those of us in Hong Kong that the true extent of this newly identified virus was still a mystery. I had become the editor of Time Asia, Time magazine’s sister publication, a year earlier. My own office, on the 37th floor of a high-rise in Quarry Bay, Hong Kong, had a panoramic view of Victoria Harbor, Kowloon beyond that, and, in the distance, the lush mountains dividing Kowloon from the New Territories. Just past that, out of sight, was China.

If Hong Kong, Toronto, and Singapore, with modern hospitals and first-rate medical treatment, could be brought to a standstill by scores of fatalities, then how must the interior of China be coping with SARS? There, the medical infrastructure in some provinces was still at developing-world levels. How would the armies of poorly trained, so-called barefoot doctors cope with a viral killer for which there was no antidote? The poorer provinces, such as Shanxi or Hebei, could have been entering into another plague-induced Dark Age. The Chinese government was still clinging to the impossibly low numbers released in February: 305 infected and 5 dead. China’s recalcitrance made it seem that the central government was surely dissembling, and what would compel it to lie but a cataclysm unfolding somewhere in the vast interior? How could the world come to grips with this disease and achieve the World Health Organization’s (WHO) goal of containment if the virus were spreading unhindered in China? Could the 10-15 percent death rate for SARS now being spoken of in Hong Kong become a global epidemic of biblical proportions? In Hong Kong, we became steadily more concerned as the cases continued to mount.

The burden of uncovering the extent — and coverup — of the SARS crisis in Beijing would fall to two young reporters. Huang Yong was a 34-year-old correspondent for Time Asia. With his shaved head and large, round, brown eyes, he came across as so boyish that few would have guessed that he was on his second marriage and had just fathered his second child. Although he had grown up in Oakland, California, he returned to China when he was 17. In 1989, when students gathered in Tiananmen Square, he spent two weeks there, standing alongside his father, earnestly believing that a new China was being born right before his eyes. On the June day the tanks rolled into the square, he was home nursing a cold. The young boy who happened to be standing beside Huang’s father was killed by a soldier’s bullet. He was left feeling heartbroken, estranged from the country he loved.

Huang’s fellow correspondent in Beijing, 27-year-old Susan Jakes, had curly brown hair that she often wore in a ponytail, squinting brown eyes, and an easygoing smile. Susie was a native New Yorker, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, attended the Trinity School there, and learned Chinese during her time at Yale University, where she graduated with honors. It would be a phone call from Susie to a friend of hers in Hong Kong that would eventually lead to the purging of some of the highest officials in China.


He had watched this before, 71-year-old Dr. Jiang Yanyong recalled. He had seen the best and brightest brought down because of a lie, for the government’s prevarications, recalcitrance, and duplicity. Jiang had been on duty the evening of June 3, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) massacred the students in Tiananmen Square. As the director of the 301 Hospital’s department of routine surgery, he was resting in his dormitory room when he heard a series of gunshots coming from the north. A few minutes later, his beeper paged, summoning him to the emergency room. "We are a big city hospital," he remembers. "We were not used to seeing young people coming in with this level of trauma." Seven students were dragged in by their compatriots, fellow protesters carrying red banners. Who would kill children? Jiang wondered. "The army," the students shouted, their faces a curious mixture of fear and rage. "It’s a bloody massacre."

"Lying before me were my own people," Jiang would later write, "killed by children of the Chinese people, with weapons given to them by the people." That night, however, Jiang didn’t have time to reflect. There was another salvo of gunshots, followed, a few minutes later, by another delivery of the wounded. Jiang was a surgeon who usually performed intricate cancer and tumor procedures; he had not seen patients as severely injured as these since he had worked with a PLA engineering unit during the construction of the Chengdu-Kunming railway during the 1960s. Back in 1989, 301 Hospital had 18 operating theaters in which doctors, working in shifts, spent the entire night performing emergency trauma procedures, attempting to save, according to Jiang, "those who could be saved."

Eighty-nine students would be rushed to 301 Hospital that night. Seven would die.

Jiang was so busy trying to stop the bleeding, reinflate lungs, and transfuse blood that he could not stop to wonder why he was called upon to perform these tasks. It was the bloodiest night of his long and storied medical career, and one that would leave him wondering why and how this had happened. Tiananmen Square was no abstraction for Jiang, nor was it a political struggle or counterrevolution or culmination of an era of reform. It was blood. Up to his elbows, staining his gown, coating his galoshes. Every surface of each article of clothing was tinged with students’ blood. Although it was figuratively on Deng Xiaoping’s hands, it was literally on Jiang’s.

Today, Jiang holds a military rank equivalent to general because of his title as chief of surgery at the hospital. For a moment, when you first see him, you think he must be in his 50s — his hair is an unnatural crow black — but there is an aged droop to his eyes, as if the ocular muscles themselves have worn out from squinting into so many surgical incisions.

Throughout March 2003, Jiang had been spending more time indoors, like many people around the world, watching television for news of the war in Iraq. The SARS virus was only a crawl on China Central Television (CCTV), a glowing proclamation that "SARS is under control and there has never been a better time to visit Guangdong Province." The SARS outbreak had so far been reported as primarily a Hong Kong problem; the disease, if it were in China at all, had probably been brought in by foreigners, the official Chinese media were reporting.

Among international public health officials, of course, there was increasing consensus that the outbreak in China was far worse than the Chinese government was admitting. The State Council Information Office was reporting 12 SARS cases and 3 fatalities in Beijing. It seemed impossible: There were thousands of cases in Guangdong and Hong Kong, and hundreds in provinces throughout China. How could Beijing have just 12 cases? Jiang found that discrepancy curious but gave it little thought.

But near the end of that month, a good friend of Jiang’s fell ill with lung cancer and, naturally, Jiang was brought in to consult on the case. The patient, a medical professor, was brought to 301 Hospital. Surprisingly, he developed a high fever and a spot was found on his lung. After another specialist was brought in, Jiang’s friend was diagnosed with SARS and transferred to the intensive care unit before he was removed and sent to 309 Hospital, deemed the official SARS Control and Prevention Center for the People’s Liberation Army. Jiang, checking on the treatment his friend might receive, phoned respiratory specialists at 309 who were former students of his from Beijing University Medical College. "They sounded very upset," Jiang recalls. "I didn’t understand why. There were just a few cases and that was such a big hospital."

There were 60 cases, Jiang was told, dozens of them medical staff themselves. Seven patients had already died of the disease. He called other colleagues and found that there were similar outbreaks occurring at 302 Hospital, which had 40 cases, and even at his own 301 Hospital, which had 46 SARS cases. "This is a terrible disease," one of his colleagues told him. "It acts so quickly. I’ve never seen any disease progress this fast. You go from breathing normally to intubation in three days. You die in a week."

Why, then, did the health minister, Zhang Wenkang, appear on television on April 3 to reassure the public that there were only 12 cases in all of Beijing, when there were 60 in just one hospital? The health minister even chastised a foreign reporter for wearing a gauze surgical mask, telling him, "You are safe here whether you wear the mask or not." Jiang, watching the press conference on TV, could not believe what he was hearing. The health minister was either lying or misinformed. Either scenario was unacceptable, considering the nature of a highly contagious, infectious disease.

Later, while taking a late-afternoon walk in the courtyard behind his apartment complex, he came upon two fellow retired senior PLA officers. They discussed the fact that there were far more cases than Health Minister Zhang was admitting.

"There must be something wrong with the health information system," one of the officers said.

"You need to talk to the health minister," said the other officer. "He’s a doctor. He should know better."

Jiang agreed. If this disease were as deadly as reports indicated, then the health minister should be making every preparation to ensure the safety of Beijing rather than appearing on television assuring the citizenry there was no risk. He now speculated that if he just told the health minister about these hundreds of cases in Beijing, about this outbreak, then appropriate action would be taken. Perhaps if he came forward and told the truth, the Communist Party would see the light.

His wife told him, "Don’t do it, you will get yourself in trouble, why are you sticking your neck out?"

And then he cried, tears welling in his eyes, "This is bigger than me, or you, or China. This could be a disaster for all of mankind."


Huang Yong had been sent by Time Asia‘s Beijing bureau chief, Matthew Forney, to drop into a few local hospitals and discreetly see if any of the doctors, nurses, or support staff would talk about atypical pneumonia cases. He walked straight into one hospital — our staff would come to call this legally and medically risky practice "bombing" hospitals — and strolled up and down the hallways. The physicians and nurses, he immediately noticed, were all wearing masks. On later bombing runs, he would carry a bouquet of flowers as a prop. For this trip, he simply began strolling around and asking different doctors if they had any of these dreaded pneumonia cases in the wards. He was told, sure, they had a few. And they had referred a few cases to 309 Hospital as well.

"How many patients do you have?" Huang asked.

"About 15," a doctor told him.

That was strange. Fifteen cases. In this one hospital? In all of Beijing, according to the Ministry of Health, there were only a dozen cases.

If a reporter working for a foreign magazine could stumble upon evidence contradictory to what a government minister was probably saying at this exact moment at a press conference somewhere in Beijing, then the lie had to be big. Which meant the truth had to be so terrifying, it necessitated a lie that had no chance of actually succeeding. Huang walked back to his little hatchback and pulled out onto the 4th Ring Road, sipping his beer. He followed this train of thought to its logical conclusion: The disease was already here, and not only was it here, it was doing so much damage that the leadership was panicking. He pulled into the parking lot at Ditan Hospital. He slipped on his gauze mask, walked up to the registration desk, and asked, "Do you have a respiratory department here?"

"What’s your problem?" asked the nurse standing behind the counter.

"Lung disease," he answered.

She jumped back a full meter and covered her mouth and nose with her hand. "Go to the emergency ward."

Huang laughed and went to the elevator bank. At the emergency ward, he strolled toward the nurses’ station in the middle of an open suite of intensive care units. There were dozens of patients in critical condition. The nurses wore masks and appeared to be busy behind the counter.

"I think my mother is here," Huang said.

"Who is she?" asked a nurse seated behind a desk.

"We call her Granny Hu," he said. "She has atypical pneumonia."

"She’s one of a dozen," the nurse said.

By the time Huang returned to the bureau, he had visited one more hospital, where he heard of about 10 more cases. That made at least 37 cases, though the official tally was still only a dozen.

Huang called me, and we talked about what he had seen. I was eager to get the story onto our Web site, and I pointed out that if, in the first three hospitals Huang walked into, we had found dozens of infected patients, then who knew how many more there were throughout Beijing?

Matt, our Beijing bureau chief, agreed, but then raised a valid point: Huang was not a doctor, and our criteria of what constitutes a SARS case could be different than the government’s.

It was a legitimate issue. If we ran a story about Beijing’s hiding cases, and it turned out these were not SARS cases but some other pneumonia — or, more likely, the government came out and said we were wrong — how could we disprove them? We didn’t have the virus growing in cell lines. We didn’t have a doctor backing up our story.

"We need a whistle-blower," Matt said.


What he was hearing sounded so farfetched that Jiang turned up the volume on his television. Minister of Health Zhang Wenkang, seated behind the microphone tree, was proclaiming that the Chinese government was already dealing diligently with the problem of SARS and that the spread of the disease was under control. Zhang was a graduate of the Second Military Medical University, perhaps the most sophisticated medical school in the country. And he was now rejecting the most basic personal principles of the medical profession.

Jiang later told me he thought a long time about what he should do. When he had once come forward during the Cultural Revolution to denounce a corrupt hospital administration, he had been detained and beaten. After Tiananmen, he kept quiet. But now, he felt he was in a different position. He had more stature than he had during the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen; he was now a party member. And he was virtually retired, a respected elder who had treated many of the top brass and had saved several important generals’ lives. Many of the senior military command requested him when they needed surgery. Perhaps his rank and connections offered him some protection. This was an opportunity to make up for the guilt he felt about never coming forward and stating what he saw the night of the massacre at Tiananmen. By keeping silent now, was he again participating in a great and terrible lie? Only this time, the consequences were incalculable.

Jiang decided to pen a note, explaining who he was and the facts about the number of SARS cases in the No. 301, No. 302, and No. 309 hospitals. "As a doctor who cares about people’s lives and health, I have a responsibility to aid international and local efforts to prevent the spread of SARS." He faxed it to the government-controlled CCTV-4 and Hong Kong’s Phoenix-TV, two of China’s biggest networks, using the fax number for viewer comments and suggestions. He assumed they would quickly get in touch with him to check his credentials before airing it. They never called.


Our Beijing correspondent, Susan Jakes, was asked to prepare a file about the general state of the Chinese healthcare system. She had no contacts in the Ministry of Health. Trying to think of a way into the subject, she decided to call a political source. Susie’s connections in the dissident community had been useful in the past, but it was unlikely those connections would extend into the Chinese medical community. Still, desperate, Susie called one of her political contacts, Harold, who had ties to party officials.

She asked him if he knew anything about SARS in Beijing.

There was silence on the line. "Call me back from a safe phone."

Often, in China, we suspected our land lines and even our cell phones were bugged. When we needed to talk specifics about sensitive subjects, Matt or Susie would switch the SIM cards in their phones from a local Beijing number to an international exchange that was billed through a foreign phone company we believed was far less likely to be tapped. Or, even safer, the reporter would find a pay phone — which are still common in China — and call from there.

Susie threw on her denim jacket, walked out of the bureau, and hurried to a nearby pay phone.

"I’m going to send you an e-mail," Harold said when she called him back. "In that e-mail, there will be a URL to a secure Web site. At that Web site, you’ll need a password. Type in your old Hong Kong phone number and you will be able to download a Word file. Read that and call me back."

Susie ran back to the office to check her e-mail. Harold’s message had already arrived. Following his instructions, she downloaded the Word document. At the top, it read Jiang Yanyong, Doctor, and said that he was a longtime Chinese Communist Party member. It also gave his phone number. She read the note. The letter indicated that the number of patients infected with SARS was significantly higher than the official statistics from China’s Ministry of Health. It went on to describe at least 60 patients at one Beijing hospital. Most amazing, this letter was signed by this doctor.

She went back to the pay phone and called Harold.

"Who is this guy?"

"He is who he says he is. A doctor. A party member."

Susie was nervous this letter would be difficult to verify. "Can I call this guy? Will he talk to me?"

"Call him," Harold assured her. "He’s at home."

Susie knew what she now had. A big story about a big lie.

Still using the pay phone, Susie called the number on the letter. Dr. Jiang Yanyong answered.

When she identified herself, Jiang told her, "Everything I want to say is in the letter."

"But I need to ask you some more questions," Susie pleaded, "to flesh this out a little bit."

He paused for a moment, and then, speaking in a lower voice, said, "Okay, let’s meet at the teahouse at 4 o’clock in the Ruicheng Hotel, in the western part of Beijing, near the 301 Military Hospital."

But, when Susie returned to the bureau, she received another call, this one from a labor lawyer she had called the day before asking if he knew anyone who knew anything about SARS.

"Why don’t you come to my office right now," he suggested. "I think I might have something you want to hear."

When Susie returned from the bureau, she took a taxi to his offices, on the fourth floor of a modern office building, and when she walked in, after he closed the door, he told her that he had a cousin who is a doctor at the Military Academy of Sciences.

"Will she talk to me?" Susie asked.

"No," the lawyer explained, "But I can call her and you can listen while we speak."

Susie would later realize that this had been prearranged by the lawyer and his cousin to screen them from any possible accusations of talking to a foreign reporter and violating a gag order that was handed down on March 7 forbidding doctors and public health officials from talking to the media about SARS. As for the veracity of the source, we had worked with this lawyer before on several stories, and found him to be reliable.

The lawyer dialed his cousin’s cell phone.

"Tell me again what you told me before," he said, handing the phone to Susie.

Susie listened as the doctor spoke of a situation even more terrifying than that described in Jiang’s letter. She described the first case to come to Beijing — a woman who had driven from Shanxi and seeded the Beijing outbreak. To Susie’s surprise, that had been in early March, during the National People’s Congress. The hospital director at the Military Academy of Sciences had told his staff that there was SARS in Beijing, but that no one was to mention a word of it outside the hospital, so as not to interfere with the National People’s Congress and leadership transition.

Since then, the woman continued, there were numerous cases at several hospitals. No. 1 and No. 2 hospitals each had dozens of cases. "They are practically filled," the woman said. And 309 Hospital, specifically mentioned in Jiang’s letter, had 40 new cases in just the last week. 301 and 302 hospitals were also being overwhelmed.

The official numbers were lies.

Susie arrived at the Ruicheng Hotel in Western Beijing at 2:45 that afternoon. With each Chinese businessman entering, Susie would glance up, wondering if he were Jiang. When he finally walked in, he paused for a moment and then, seeing Susie, the only foreigner, he gestured for her with a quick wave to follow him. She took off after him as he headed for a corner of the lobby. He led her through a service entrance, up an elevator, and down a hall, where he asked a hotel employee for directions. Susie realized he didn’t know where he was going as he walked into a cafeteria, which, it being the mid-afternoon, was closed. Finally, he found the teahouse and took a seat in a booth partitioned from the restaurant by wooden screens. Around them, they heard the clatter of mah-jongg tiles, which, besides clandestine business meetings, was the primary purpose for these little teahouse rooms. Susie’s first impression was that he was nervous. But once they ordered and began to chat, he calmed down. He talked about his work as a surgeon, spoke in very clear Chinese, and gave the names of medical procedures in very good English. He was, Susie quickly deduced, exactly who he said he was in the letter.

Finally, Susie asked, "Why did you write this?"

He paused. "As a doctor, I cannot stand by while there is a terrible disease threatening the people and they are not hearing the truth about it."

Jiang didn’t resemble the dissidents Susie had known. Those fellows had an agitated quality that came across almost as a twisted sense of entitlement. They had been through so much that they no longer felt it necessary to consider the feelings of those who hadn’t suffered as they had. Jiang was different. He was an elder, and like a teacher, was coming forward because he was disappointed at how his students were behaving. He emphasized that he was a party member, that he felt, as a member of the leadership, he had an obligation to state the truth. As they pored through his letter sentence by sentence, Susie felt increasingly comfortable that the material was journalistically sound. Her listening in on the phone call from the female doctor had essentially confirmed everything Jiang had written.

"Are you sure you want to sign your name to this?" Susie asked him.


"Aren’t you afraid this will get you into trouble?"

"Everything I have said is true," he said, nodding.

"That doesn’t mean you won’t get in trouble."

"I have constitutional protection."

Susie shook her head. She can take on an almost haughty demeanor when she feels someone is making a mistake. So far, she had remained deferential; Jiang was, after all, an elder accustomed to being treated respectfully. Now, however, Susie felt she needed to be understood clearly. Susie had worked with numerous Chinese who should have been protected by the constitution yet were sentenced to reeducation, put through the psychiatric hospital system that is often used in lieu of prison, or forced to flee. The truth provided no sanctuary.

"The constitution doesn’t protect everybody," Susie said. "It will not protect you."

He smiled. "I am 71 years old, and I have lived in this country a long time." He knew exactly what was at stake.

She sent the story to me at 9 p.m. We had it up on our Web site an hour later. Almost immediately, the story was picked up by media all over the world.


Huang Yong chugged down a bottle of Beijing Spring beer and lit a cigarette. He had decided to finish his brew before bombing another croak house. Huang had shrugged when asked whether he thought these bombing runs were dangerous. He would pull on his black leather car coat and say, "Oh, I think I’ll be fine." And fortified by a few beers, he didn’t hesitate to venture into what would turn out to be some of the most dangerous hospital wards in Beijing.

Still, nothing could have prepared him for what he found. In an aged and run-down hospital ward were dozens of patients, "every single one of us in this building," a nurse infected with SARS named Zhang would tell him, "is a SARS patient." The patients were sprawled on dirty sheets, catatonic, fighting for their lives. "There are at least 100 SARS patients here, if not several hundred," said the nurse. "We’re not allowed out of this room. We piss in this room, crap in this room, and eat in this room. At least half the patients here are doctors and nurses from other hospitals." This was the charnel house that we had all feared was out there. Huang steeled himself and continued walking through the wards. He regretted not wearing a surgical mask, yet felt obligated to continue his journalistic rounds. Another nurse in a surgical mask and gown stopped him.

"Look, I’m not pushing you away. I do this for your own good," she explained. "No place is safe in this hospital. All of these wards are full of SARS patients, there are over 100 at least. Don’t believe the government — they never tell the truth. They say it’s a deadly disease with 4 percent mortality? Are you kidding me? The death rate is at least 25 percent."

Huang would crack open another brew back in his car and chug down almost half of it before driving back to the bureau. When he arrived, he walked into Susie’s office to report what he had seen. He had a smile on his face.

It was all true, every one of those awful rumors. Huang had not only confirmed them; he had seen it for himself.

And, he would tell me later, he had never felt so alive.


Huang had already tapped out his most obvious contacts. He began calling friends and asking if they knew anyone who worked in Beijing’s hospitals or public health sectors, not really expecting to come up with a source. Yet a friend of his suggested a doctor from the China-Japan Friendship Hospital whom he vaguely knew and gave Huang his mobile phone number.

Huang called and quickly explained who he was and that they shared a mutual friend, and what we had learned about the coverup.

The doctor was silent.

Fearing he would hang up, Huang added that what they knew was going to be published anyway, and this was merely an attempt to make sure they had the facts correct.

Huang listened as the doctor took a deep breath and sighed, "It’s true."

The doctor then recounted to Huang the story of the WHO’s April visit to the China-Japan Friendship Hospital. The hospital had 56 SARS patients, 31 of whom were doctors, nurses, and other medical workers. A few minutes before the WHO team arrived, a fleet of ambulances pulled into the horseshoe driveway in front of the hospital. The hospital director ordered the stricken healthcare workers loaded onto gurneys, and staff scrambled to move these patients into the waiting ambulances. As the team of WHO experts inspected the hospital, the fleet of white vans took a leisurely tour around Beijing, keeping its deadly cargo of 31 coughing health workers a secret from the world.

The doctor was now confirming with Huang that this was more than a "hole"; it was a pattern of deception the scope and scale of which were hard to imagine.

Huang asked him, "How could you do this?"

The doctor said softly, "We are ashamed."


On April 20, Hong Kong felt a little like those scenes of post-virus London in 28 Days Later — I was the only shopper on the entire fourth floor of the Landmark Building, one of Hong Kong’s most popular malls. There had been nearly 100 deaths in Hong Kong due to SARS, but the city was so abandoned you would have guessed the body count was a thousand times more.

As I was leaving, my cell phone rang. It was Susie calling from Beijing. China’s Minister of Health Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong had just been ousted. It was the highest-level Chinese government purge since the uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"It’s unbelievable," Susie said. She described the press conference that morning at which Gao Qiang, the deputy minister of health, had revised the number of SARS cases in Beijing upward by a factor of 9, from 37 to 339. There were 402 additional suspected cases in the capital, he said. In Shanxi, there were 108 cases; in Guanxi, 12; Hunan, 6; and on and on through each province for which the government had even the sketchiest of statistics. Nearly 2,200 SARS cases in China, up from 350 just the day before.

The first phase of response to the outbreak, government denial, had officially ended.

I had to stop. Right there on Queen’s Road. The Chinese government had just admitted it was wrong, catastrophically so, to the point where it had just held a public, nationally televised mea culpa. And then it canceled May Day. And it was due, in part, to the work of Susie and Huang, and the courage of one very brave doctor. Standing there next to the Dunhill boutique in my light-blue surgical mask with a Nokia pressed to my ear, I was proud of our reporters and, most of all, of Dr. Jiang Yanyong.

Jiang had become an international hero because of the courage he showed in exposing the SARS coverup, so renowned that the Chinese government didn’t dare detain him. Yet.

His next act of insubordination, however — a February 2004 open letter to the National People’s Congress that questioned the party line that the Tiananmen massacre had been a counterrevolutionary rebellion — prompted his and his wife’s arrest and reeducation later that year. He has not issued a public comment since.

Who will be so brave next time?

Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of three books about Asia, including the newly published China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), from which this article is adapted. He was editor of Time magazine's Asia edition from 2001 until 2004 and is currently editor-at-large at Sports Illustrated.

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