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Bird Flu Rumors Spread Through China: “We Don’t Know What To Believe”

12 people have been arrested in China for spreading reputedly false bird flu rumors. But in a society that tends to be skeptical about its government and media being transparent, where else can people turn for information?

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12 people across six provinces in China have so far been arrested for spreading rumors about unconfirmed incidences of bird flu. The government’s motive behind the detentions is, apparently, to curb panic and hysteria, but I must wonder how this dozen was selected when rumors of bird flu are flying everywhere via word of mouth and social media?

Over the past week, the city of Taizhou in Jiangsu province was awash with a rumor that a boy was infected with bird flu in the south of the city. “He ate the soup, pigeon soup,” was the word on the street. Nobody was quiet about this, people talked about it openly, and there was no sign of anybody felt that they were going to be busted by the though police for sharing this rumor. This bit of hearsay was told as if it was established fact for a day or two, but when it appeared evident that the case wasn’t going to be officially confirmed most people seemed to lose interest in it — some even admitted that it may have been a fabrication or otherwise not true.

More on Vagabond Journey: How The Chinese Deal With Bird Flu

Fertile ground for rumors is created in China by the fact that many people, generally speaking, tend to be skeptical that the government and their handmaiden media is willing or able to supply them with information about what is really going on. With the absence of an information dissemination network that can be relied upon, hearsay and gossip fill the void. In point, when something occurs in China, the public reports to work at the rumor mill, and the streets, homes, and social media networks light up with unconfirmed stories that someone heard from someone else. This recent outbreak of bird flu has been no different.

When I was trying to get confirmation on the rumor of bird flu in Taizhou, I asked if anyone heard about it on the news.

“No, it wasn’t on the news,” one woman replied. “The news doesn’t tell us anything.” She then added, “It was probably on QQ or something.”

This is a word-of-mouth society, and this ethic has been taken to the social networks. QQ, Weibo, and the other Chinese social media networks provide gigantic bullhorns for rumors to be spread through.

Perhaps the government here realizes that they can no longer keep big issues shut up anymore, but they also probably realize that their power to quell rumors with denials has historically proven rather ineffective  There is an old adage in China that you should never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.

Pigeons, one of the types of birds that are carrying this new strand of bird flu

Pigeons, one of the types of birds that are carrying this new strand of bird flu

Though it is perhaps difficult for a government to dispel rumors and hearsay when they are viewed as being little more reliable than these sources they attempt to silence. On one side of the coin you have a rumor mill churning out mountains of misinformation, while on the other say you have a government that has a reputation for being incredibly tight-lipped in the face of impending crisis. The people here seem to balance these two extremes and attempt to decipher what’s going on for themselves.

Perhaps this is not without due cause:

The Chinese government waited two weeks after confirmation of the first H7N9 death before notifying the public.

From Reuters:

Such fears stem from a long list of attempted cover-ups, including that of an epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in China in 2002 and killed about one in 10 of the 8,000 people it infected worldwide.

Suspicions are also tied to an HIV/AIDS scandal in the 1990s, when officials tried to suppress information of thousands of villagers who were infected through blood donation stations.

But both of those scandals came before the advent of popular local microblog sites; these now have millions of Internet-savvy users who, despite heavy online censorship, have managed to whip up public awareness over galling health and food-safety issues.

The difficulty of keeping a lid on information is one reason China has increased transparency about H7N9, said Jia Xijin, an expert on civil society at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

“Concealing the information is impossible,” Jia said. “If they keep the information it will only increase criticism.”

It goes without saying that this is a government that is obsessed with keeping a grip on its massive population, and, all too often, they reap exactly what they intend to weed out. By keeping quiet and silencing people in an attempt to inhibit panic they open the gates for rumors and hearsay to flourish. An opaque government gives power to conspiracy theorists to feed bullshit to a society that knows it is out of the loop. “We don’t know what to believe,” was how one Chinese woman put it to me.

“People aren’t fundamentally worried about the bird flu, but about cover-ups and the lack of transparency. The mistrust of the government is far more frightening than H7N9,” wrote a user on Weibo.

Attempting to silence the rumor mill only makes its wheels spin faster.


Filed under: China, Epidemics

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3688 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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