Chapter 65: SARS Propaganda and False Security

People's militia
While SARS plagued China in May 2003, SARS propaganda plagued the TV reels on the bus I took to work (image of 1958 China propaganda from Wikimedia Commons).

The slogan of Oriental Pearl Moving Television — broadcasted on LCD TVs installed in the buses I rode downtown — was this: “you can learn about all of the news under the sun without stepping foot off the bus”.

But during SARS, it was more like: “you can hear all of the SARS propaganda under the sun, without stepping foot off the bus.”

In the thirty minutes or so I spent on the bus, I saw five different spots — repeated at least three times:

1. Moments from real people “on the front lines” fighting against SARS. A woman passes out propaganda sheets about SARS. A public servant examines travelers at the railway station. A factory worker sews up masks. A cleaning lady disinfects subway cars. A little girl washes her hands. A doctor appears in a mask. The ending message? “This is our battlefield. Fight to the end, we’ll certainly be successful.”

2. “I’m home.” A dramatization of a little girl who awaits the return of her mother, a doctor under quarantine while treating SARS patients.

3. What I call the “SARS movie trailer.” It begins with the kind of heart-pounding soundtrack in a murder mystery, where they’re finally tracking the suspect. But instead of shooting a person, they shoot the walls of subways, trains, offices, and factories — with a disinfecting solution. Under it all, a voice booms “to prevent SARS, we need science. To fight SARS, we need togetherness.”

4. “Mr. Glasses-face.” This cartoonish character — wearing impossibly huge spectacles — teaches us what we can do to prevent SARS: wash your hands often, ventilate your room, avoid crowded public areas, and don’t touch your face with dirty hands.

5. Cartoons about personal hygiene. One shows someone spitting in public, another shows someone sneezing on others. The message? Don’t do it for your health, and the health of others.

I saw these spots everyday, just as I saw the posters on the streets, and the ubiquitous e-mails of Hong Kongers in masks. But I didn’t hear much about SARS from anyone in the office. I mentioned it in passing to some of my coworkers during lunch in late May 2003, but they shrugged it off. “We’re in Shanghai,” they said. Shanghai still had yet to have an explosive epidemic like Beijing, where still hundreds of cases surfaced each day in the news.

Even I told myself the same thing. We’re in Shanghai. I was foolish to believe it — how could a city protect us? But we did feel protected, somehow — with a repeating reel of SARS propaganda wrapped around our psyches.

Have you ever been affected by propaganda in China, or elsewhere?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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