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Doctor who exposed the size of the 2003 SARS outbreak dies at 91

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Twenty years ago, a surgeon blew the whistle on China's SARS epidemic. And because he did that, he was under state surveillance until his death at 91. NPR's Emily Feng looks back.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Jiang Yanyong was a doctor at a Beijing military hospital in March 2003 when he and other staff were briefed about the outbreak of a highly deadly virus called SARS, but were told to keep quiet lest the news detract from an annual political gathering in the capital. Infuriated, Jiang wrote a tell-all letter and mailed it to journalists. One of those who ended up receiving the letter was Susan Jakes, then a Time magazine reporter in Beijing.

SUSAN JAKES: It was pretty short, but basically said that two military hospitals - both the one where he was affiliated and one of the other ones - that he knew that there were numerous people, including doctors and nurses, who had contracted SARS in Beijing and that some of them had died.

FENG: He wrote that nearly 100 people had already gotten SARS in Beijing.

JAKES: He was so specific in the details that he was giving. I think I asked him, you know, why are you doing this? And his explanation was that it was just really basic for a doctor to believe that health officials needed to tell the truth. He was visibly angry at what was going on.

FENG: Jakes published her interview with him and broke the news over the cover-up. And in that story, Jiang insisted on being fully named as a source.

JAKES: And he basically said, you know, I'm old. I didn't know at that point how many things he had been through in his life. But he basically said, I know what I'm doing.

FENG: Jiang Yanyong was born in 1931 to a prosperous banking family in China's southern Zhejiang province. That background led him to be imprisoned and briefly exiled during the Cultural Revolution, a period of political turmoil in the 1960s and '70s. He survived that. And in 1989, because he was a surgeon at Beijing's No. 301 military hospital, he treated dozens of victims of the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown. It was an experience that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Speaking out about the SARS outbreak made him a national hero and led to a World Health Organization investigation, plus the resignation of both China's health minister and the mayor of Beijing. But Jiang's life was soon to take a very different turn. Encouraged, he decided to pen an open letter the year after, calling on China's ruling Communist Party to admit it made a mistake by firing on pro-democracy protesters in 1989. After that letter, he was disappeared for months. Here's one of his daughters, Jiang Rui, then living in the U.S. in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIANG RUI: They are trying to use this detention to pressure him to admit something he did was wrong, especially the letter he wrote this year regarding the Tiananmen massacre.

FENG: Thus began nearly two decades of on-and-off-again detention and house arrest. Yet Jiang continued to speak out about government corruption and low benefits for military veterans. Here is Jiang speaking to a Hong Kong television outlet a few years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIANG YANYONG: (Through interpreter) Before June 4, we shouted chants against state profiteering and corruption, didn't we? We wanted democracy and transparency. But the problems we opposed then weren't even as severe as they are now.

FENG: He paid a high price for that outspokenness, much like Dr. Li Wenliang, the eye doctor who tried to alert his colleagues of COVID-19, another deadly virus, nearly two decades later. This week, even news of Jiang's death was highly guarded, though two family friends confirmed his passing to NPR. Plainclothes police monitored his funeral in Beijing on Wednesday so that paying last respects to the whistleblowing surgeon was not possible.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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