We were already worried our phones were being monitored. But we could easily switch out SIM cards or use the ubiquitous pay phones at local grocery stores. The surveillance system back then still relied on people following other people. And even trained state security agents can lose track of people. Under this relatively lax regime, Jakes, the Time reporter, was able to contact a trauma surgeon from Beijing’s 301 Hospital, Jiang Yanyong, who revealed the true extent and scope of the outbreak and the astonishing scale of the cover-up, including patients being wheeled out of hospitals via back exits as WHO inspectors were entering the front. Jakes had gotten lucky when Jiang's daughter-in-law reached out to her and said Jiang had written an open letter on what he had seen.* Jiang told Jakes that the Chinese government could not be relied on to tell the truth about the number of infected, sick, and dying.
The mayor of Beijing and the minister of health would both resign after Jakes’s stories, the only instance I can recall of high-level Chinese government ministers resigning due to a scoop.
Because of changes in China and the United States, reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak is more challenging. For a few weeks in January and February, journalists in Wuhan, some of them ordinary citizens, told the world what was happening at great personal risk. Then, in March, Chen Qiushi, one citizen journalist who wrote critical stories of the Chinese government’s initial handling of the outbreak, simply vanished. Chinese journalists and scientists have since been wary of speaking out. And very few Westerners have managed to report from Wuhan. We haven’t definitively learned much more about the origins of the disease since those first reports last year: Who was the index patient? Where does the host species reside? What species was the intermediary, if there was one? In other words, the answers to the journalistic questions who, what, when, and where.
The Communist Party’s security services have become so ruthless at shutting down dissent that today, a whistleblower like Jiang might hold back. “The willingness to enlarge the circle of pain has made a difference,” Pomfret told me. “Talk to a journalist now, and that could mean ruining your children’s life, your grandchildren’s. That has had a stultifying effect.”
These extreme measures are in part due to disease outbreaks being particularly embarrassing for governments that tout prosperity and “law and order” as primary claims to legitimacy.
The surveillance situation is far more extreme, as well. China is practically a cashless society, where transactions are made via smartphone. And buying a new SIM card requires an official, state-issued identification card that is duly noted and logged. A system that tracks you by your smartphone can always find you via your smartphone. In 2003, Jakes talked with Jiang on a pay phone before going to meet him on a subway; that sort of scenario is improbable now.