- As the virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome swept unacknowledged into Beijing, he broke China’s habit of silence and forced the truth of SARS into the open.
- For his bold act, Jiang enjoyed a brief moment of celebrity and was lauded as “China’s pride.” But he is not a dissident by nature. He obeyed orders not to speak to reporters.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his brave stand for truth in China, spurring life-saving measures to confront and contain the deadly threat of SARS.”
A small dose of truth can sometimes make all the difference, especially in societies where speaking out is not the norm. In China, for example, stability is highly prized and, with it, restraint. It is rare for someone to contradict the authorities openly. For most of his life, Jiang Yanyong, a medical doctor, felt little need to do so. But in 2003, as the virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome swept unacknowledged into Beijing, he broke China’s habit of silence and forced the truth of SARS into the open.
Born to privilege but in unsettled times, Jiang attended Yanjing University during the final years of the civil war that, in 1949, brought communist rule to China. He chose a career in medicine after seeing an aunt die of tuberculosis and, in 1952, entered Peking Union Medical College. Embracing the hopes of the revolution, Jiang joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1954 and, in 1957, was assigned to the army’s No. 301 Hospital in Beijing. In 1987, he was named its chief surgeon.
Indeed, Jiang became a master surgeon, earning the nickname Magic Scalpel and also Brave Jiang, for daring to take the most difficult cases. Serving with the army Railway Corps in the 1960s, his skill in trauma surgery saved the lives of many soldiers injured while building the the Chengdu-Kunming railroad line. Like other professionals of his generation, he rode the waves of China’s political storms, suffering as a “rightist” following the Hundred Flowers campaign of the 1950s and as a “counterrevolutionary” during the bitter Cultural Revolution. In each case, Jiang was vindicated and his good name restored. As a loyal member of the Chinese Communist Party, he kept faith with his country’s leadership and its willingness to recognize and correct its mistakes.
General Jiang was already retired in early 2003 when SARS began to spread from its original habitat in Guangdong Province to Hong Kong and beyond. Through contacts in Beijing’s hospitals, he learned of the alarming number of SARS cases and deaths in the capital. Yet, as the threat of an epidemic mounted, Beijing’s hospital officials were warned not to speak about it for fear of disturbing important national meetings. In April, China’s health minister announced SARS figures that grossly understated the facts. Jiang now acted. In a letter to the press, he revealed the true figures and, at great risk, signed his name. Other Chinese doctors and the World Health Organization corroborated his revelations and the news spread around the world. Jiang’s jolt of truth struck home. The Chinese authorities acted quickly. They fired the country’s health minister and, in June, made SARS the subject of a massive public health campaign. A comprehensive system of monitoring was soon in place and, by July, the deadly virus was contained.
For his bold act, Jiang enjoyed a brief moment of celebrity and was lauded as “China’s pride.” But he is not a dissident by nature. He obeyed orders not to speak to reporters. And when the crisis passed, he openly applauded China’s leaders for their “marked progress in the fight against the epidemic.”
Seventy-two-year-old Jiang, a tall man with a kindly face, visits his old surgery wards weekly and still accepts the occasional case. His vocation has shaped his character. “I am a doctor,” he says. “If I see a human life at stake, I will intervene.”
In electing Jiang Yanyong to receive the 2004 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the board of trustees recognizes his brave stand for truth in China, spurring life-saving measures to confront and contain the deadly threat of SARS.
Only a few wrinkles line Jiang Yanyong’s chiseled face. His hairline is receding but his salt-and-pepper hair remains fairly thick. His surgical hands, long and slender, move nimbly as he flips through a stack of old pictures and letters that he keeps in his spacious Beijing apartment. For a septuagenarian who has lived through the exhilarating but tumultuous years of modern China, the lanky retired surgeon shows little sign of the stress and pain that he has endured during the political storms of his life. Dr. Jiang speaks softly and deliberately as he reminisces about his illustrious life as a top-rate surgeon and a fearless whistle-blower. “To be an honest person,” he says solemnly, “that was what my mother taught me since childhood.”
Jiang is hailed worldwide as “the hero of the SARS epidemic” for revealing publicly the Chinese cover-up of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). His exposé led to the sacking of senior Chinese officials and prompted timely, open, and truthful reporting of the epidemic. Jiang, then seventy-two, reluctantly took the role of whistle-blower. In doing so, he saved countless lives even as he put his own life at risk.
For most of his seven decades, the urbane and soft-spoken surgeon felt little need to challenge the party line. He is after all a veteran member of the Chinese Communist Party and a senior officer in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It is rare in China for someone to contradict the authorities openly. Indeed, to survive, one learns to feign compliance—or to quietly ignore the truth. But sometimes, a small dose of truth can make a big difference. That time came for Jiang in 2003, when a corona virus that causes SARS swept across China and the globe.
The first SARS cases appeared in November 2002 in China’s southern province of Guangdong, a veritable petri dish of viruses and infectious diseases. Initially misdiagnosed as atypical pneumonia, the respiratory illness proved to be a medical puzzle. It usually begins with a fever; after two to seven days of incubation, SARS patients develop dry coughing and insufficient oxygen reaches the blood. Without timely treatment, the illness can become lethal. The SARS virus is typically spread by close personal contact, through the air or by other ways. To cut the chain of SARS infection as it spread from one population to another, it became imperative to monitor its global spread and to quarantine patients promptly. Officials of the World Health Organization (WHO) called SARS “the first severe new disease of the twenty-first century with global epidemic potential” and urged the Chinese to share their data.
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