Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chinese Villagers Heed Party's War Cry on SARS

ON ROUTE 110 OUTSIDE XINBAIMIAO, China -- The corn farmers were dressed in camouflage and sitting in the dark on the side of the road, their unshaven faces barely visible in the dim light cast from the doorway of a small shack. When a jeep tried to turn off the highway, they jumped up and ran into the road to block it.

"You can't go this way," shouted Qiao Pingjia, 52, a burly fellow waving a stick with a piece of red cloth tied to one end. This was the way to Xinbaimiao village, he said, and visitors were no longer welcome. Spurred to action by village officials, residents had set up 24-hour checkpoints to keep out people who might be carrying the SARS virus.

"We won't even let our relatives in," said Lei Quebiao, 53, another farmer watching the road from the village to Route 110, a potholed highway that stretches across the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. "We're afraid," he said. "We're afraid of dying."

Throughout northern China, where severe acute respiratory syndrome has infected and killed more people than anywhere else in the country, people have answered the ruling Communist Party's call to wage an all-out war against the epidemic. A four-day drive of more than 1,000 kilometers from Beijing through the hardest-hit provinces revealed a region on alert, where ordinary life has been transformed by the government's campaign against SARS as much as by fear of the disease.

From the parched fields of Hebei and the coal towns of Shanxi to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and the port city of Tianjin, the journey also highlighted one of the Communist Party's enduring strengths. Though it enjoys fewer controls over society than ever before and has transferred some power from Beijing to the provinces, the party can still organize a mass political campaign that reaches deep into the hinterlands and snaps people into action.

The highways are dotted with roadblocks, where police officers wearing hospital gowns stop every motorist, record their names and numbers, then spray their vehicles, inside and out, with pungent disinfectants. Medical workers check every traveler's temperature, usually with a gadget that takes a reading by beaming a laser at a person's forehead. Those found to be running a fever are confined to isolation booths at the side of the road until an ambulance arrives.

In many cities and towns, authorities have suspended classes, closed restaurants, shut down shops and strung red banners urging the masses to "join the battle" against SARS and treat it as a "great political task." The party has directed its vast apparatus of informers, loyalists and bureaucrats to do whatever it takes to identify and isolate people with symptoms of the disease.

Driven by political zeal as much as fear or vigilance, local officials have sealed off villages, apartment complexes and university campuses, quarantined tens of thousands of people and set up "fever checkpoints" at train terminals, bus stations and hotels.

Officials in Tianjin and Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, followed Beijing's lead and raced to open new SARS hospitals, completing them in less than three weeks. In the city of Xuanhua in Hebei province, officials even diverted public buses away from neighborhoods with hospitals with suspected cases.

The approach may seem excessive, but it appears to be working. Doctors and nurses at more than a dozen hospitals, speaking without local officials present, described a steady decline in infections in the region, and said they had seen little evidence of an extensive coverup like the one attempted in Beijing. Interviews with journalists, local officials and residents along the route also supported the conclusion that the nightmare of a widespread outbreak overwhelming the fragile health care system in China's poor, interior provinces has not been realized.

"The peak is over," said Li Peiwen, a senior physician at the No. 2 Hospital in Fengzhen, located in Inner Mongolia near the border with Shanxi.

China reported one new case of SARS on Friday, and two deaths. There have been 5,329 SARS cases in the country and 338 deaths, more than anywhere else in the world. While about 2,500 of the cases occurred in Beijing, with a population of 13 million, the surrounding provinces, with a combined population of more than 130 million, have reported only about 1,100 cases.

Doctors said the virus may have spread less quickly through the provinces because they are not as densely populated, and people travel less. It also has been easier to isolate patients and ensure good ventilation in older, simpler hospitals in the provinces than in more modern hospitals with air conditioning systems, said Dan Sermand, who heads a Doctors Without Borders team helping train medical workers in Hebei's Zhangjiakou city.

But Sermand and others warn that it is too early for China to let down its guard. While the country's Communist leaders have demonstrated an ability to spur people to action in even the most remote villages, it may be difficult for them to sustain high alert across the country for an extended period of time.

Outside Xinbaimiao village, as the farmers spoke with the occupants of the jeep, a truck and a motorcycle slipped past them and disappeared.

The sign above the road said, "The Villagers of Dongganzhuang Welcome You." But three men blocked the way with a wooden pole and refused to let anyone through. Located about 150 kilometers northwest of Beijing, Dongganzhuang was the first village in Hebei province to report a SARS case. A resident who had sought medical care for the illness in Beijing returned in late March. By mid-April, he was dead, and his wife, son, daughter, son-in-law and another in-law were running fevers, a relative said.

Then, soon after Beijing acknowledged the epidemic and launched the campaign against it, local authorities declared a quarantine of the entire village, population 1,174. Residents interviewed at the entrance to the village said they had been confined to their fields and homes, and forbidden to get together even to play mahjongg. Party officials arranged for food and water deliveries.

Three weeks later, the quarantine was lifted, but village officials decided to keep Dongganzhuang off-limits to outsiders. "We're afraid of people bringing in the virus," said one farmer, who asked to be identified only by his surname, Yu.

Similar measures have been adopted throughout northern China. Residents said they were acting both to protect themselves and to carry out orders from party-controlled village and neighborhood committees. "If I let you in, I'd be letting the people down, and the village committee down," said Kang Zhaizhong, 46, a farmer who had blocked the entrance to nearby Santaizi village with a pile of sticks and stones.