x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Online pictures of dead birds spur China flu openness

Photos of 10 dead sparrows on a Chinese pavement which went viral on social media and drew a swift official response show how hard covering up a bird flu outbreak would be in the internet age.

SHANGHAI // Photos of 10 dead sparrows on a Chinese pavement which went viral on social media and drew a swift official response show how hard covering up a bird flu outbreak would be in the internet age.

China has received international praise for its transparency on the H7N9 strain, which has killed 14 people so far, in sharp contrast to criticism for trying to conceal the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) epidemic.

But analysts say the government has little choice, as technological change over the past decade and the proliferation of Twitter-like "weibo" microblogs help drive greater official openness.

Mao Xiaojiong's images, shot beneath a magnolia tree near her home in Nanjing, which banned live poultry trading and culled birds after confirming H7N9 in people, were a case in point.

When she posted them on her weibo account this month, asking authorities to investigate, they were reposted 20,000 times, racked up hundreds of thousands of views, and became a top topic on internet portal Sina.

Police whisked away one of the dead birds the same night to test for H7N9, and within two days authorities publicly ruled out the virus as a cause of death.

Ms Mao, who like many Chinese internet users uses a pseudonym to try to retain anonymity, said the spread of her post "showed this matter received great attention from the public".

"It made it easier to attract attention of the government," she said.

But she also deleted her original post and changed her account name because of worries over the uproar she caused.

"Really nervous seeing so many reposts ... As it hasn't been confirmed by officials, I deleted the post so as not to cause panic," she said.

China keeps a tight grip on the internet, censoring content it deems politically sensitive and keeping a close watch even on euphemisms that citizens use to evade scrutiny.

In the face of H7N9, it has also used a more old-fashioned tool of control, detaining at least a dozen people for spreading false information online about outbreaks where they lived, saying their actions had heightened public fears.