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My meeting with Jiang Yanyong, the Chinese doctor who dared speak the truth about SARS

Military surgeon Jiang Yanyong, the doctor who spoke out the truth of SARS 10 years ago, talks at a forum on the 10th anniversary of SARS held in Beijing.
Simon Song/South China Morning Post via Get
Military surgeon Jiang Yanyong, the doctor who spoke out the truth of SARS 10 years ago, talks at a forum on the 10th anniversary of SARS held in Beijing.

"To get by in China, a citizen learns to adjust to the gulf between the truth and the official truth. Officially, China is a 'People's Republic' that puts the worker first. Officially, China respects human rights. Officially, China's media report the news freely. Those who call attention to the gulf between these official truths and the unhappy reality are labeled confused, unpatriotic or evil — because, officially, no gulf exists."

This was how I began Time magazine's 2003 "Asian Newsmaker of the Year" citation for Dr. Jiang Yanyong, a Chinese military surgeon, who died March 11 at the age of 91.

The news Jiang made that year was exposing the Chinese government's cover-up of Beijing's outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Just as COVID-19 would be in 2020, SARS was a deadly respiratory illness caused by a then-novel coronavirus. To Jiang, his act simply upheld "the most rudimentary standards" of his profession. It forced a collision of fact with official lies and created the space for other officials and doctors to tell the truth. This led to the ouster of China's health minister and Beijing's mayor — an unprecedented if tacit concession of error on the part of China's leaders — and saved an untold number of lives.

In the spring of 2003, SARS had been circulating in southern China and Hong Kong for several months. Some 2,300 people had been infected around the world. Rumor had it that the virus was now spreading within Beijing, where Jiang, then 71, was in semi-retirement after a career practicing and teaching surgery at one of China's top hospitals, run by the country's military.

China's health minister, Zhang Wenkang, himself a former military doctor, issued a statement on April 3 with the reassuring news that the capital had seen only 12 cases of SARS all of whom had contracted it outside of Beijing. On April 6, China's premier, Wen Jiabao, followed up to "warmly welcome friends worldwide to come to our country for tourism, visits or to engage in commercial activities" and asserted that "the Chinese government [was] fully capable of controlling the spread" of the illness.

Jiang watched these statements in disbelief. He knew that doctors and nurses in Beijing were contracting SARS while treating patients, who occupied hospital beds by the dozens. After talking to colleagues at his own hospital that he would describe as "furious" at Zhang and Wen's lies, he decided to sound the alarm. On April 4, he faxed a statement on the true spread of the disease to China's main state broadcaster and to a TV station in Hong Kong. He received no response.

I was a correspondent for Time in Beijing and was having a hard time reaching doctors who would speak to me. On April 8, I called a well-connected friend who'd grown up in Beijing and who I hoped might know some doctors. He was breathless when he answered. Apparently, he had been just about to call me. He asked me to call him back from a "safe" phone outside of the Time bureau. Once I did, he told me about Jiang's statement and said he'd send it right away.

A few minutes later, heart racing, I read the single printed page. It was unheard of for a person of Jiang's stature — as a chief of surgery at his military hospital his rank was equivalent to that of a U.S. major general — to directly contradict China's most senior leaders, let alone to do with his name and two home telephone numbers emblazoned atop his allegations. I dialed one of them. It took some cajoling but after a few minutes on the phone he agreed to meet me later that afternoon at a hotel near his hospital.

I returned to my office to read the statement more closely. It was just five paragraphs long. Jiang described how appalled he'd felt when he'd heard the health minister's statement and then detailed why the official number of cases was an undercount. His own hospital moved a SARS patient to an infectious disease hospital, where 10 doctors and nurses fell ill. At another hospital, there were 60 cases and seven deaths. The official number of cases for all of Beijing that day was 19 with one death. Perhaps the most damning of his revelations was that medical personnel in Beijing knew in early March that SARS was spreading locally but had been forbidden to make that information public to "ensure stability" at two upcoming annual government meetings that would bring officials from all over the country to the capital to set China's policy agenda for the year ahead.

My phone rang as I was reading. Another source let me listen in on a conversation with a relative at a Beijing military hospital. That account matched Jiang's in nearly every detail.

After that corroboration, I headed to the Ruicheng Hotel to wait. I was the only foreigner in the lobby when Jiang arrived. He was tall, lean and dressed in an elegant hunter green blazer. He nodded and beckoned slightly before darting toward a flight of stairs, as though on his way to meet someone else. A tea house above the lobby was mostly empty and as we sat down, the gravity of what we were about to do hung awkwardly between us. He asked to see my copy of his statement and added updates and corrections. I could see he was tense and worried about diving into my questions. But after a few minutes, the waitress' elaborate ministrations over our tea broke the ice. Jiang raised his eyebrows and emitted a tiny smirk of exasperation. I grinned back. He winked.

Perhaps this was the trick of an experienced doctor, a good bedside manner, or maybe we somehow managed to put each other at ease. From there the conversation flowed smoothly. Jiang explained how he knew what he knew, his voice rising as he described how angry and frightened his colleagues were and the risk SARS posed to the general population. "If I were an ordinary person and started to run a fever," he said, "I wouldn't know to go to a hospital. I could be severely ill before I realized it was more than a cold." This was the fear that had impelled him to act.

We talked for about an hour, mostly in Chinese. Occasionally Jiang threw in a medical term or a couple of sentences in the clear unaccented English he'd learned as boy in Shanghai. The conversation was grave and clinical. He took pains to relate each of the many ways he had confirmed his information. And yet, at moments there was a certain lightness, an almost impish quality to the way he spoke to me. He was enjoying himself. In later years I'd come to realize that was part of who he was, a trait that had probably helped him to endure the political convulsions of China's previous several decades and his own persecution during the Cultural Revolution.

I worried he might not realize that publishing his statement in Time could bring him danger. Confident I had already corroborated most of his claims, I asked him if he wanted to remain anonymous. His refusal was adamant. He was telling the truth. It would be far more credible with his name attached, and he said he was prepared to face the consequences, whatever they might be.

We published that night. By the end of the next day, after Jiang fielded calls from dozens of reporters, the military instructed him to stop talking to foreigners. He called me to tell me this. But the following week, when a World Health Organization SARS inspection team visited Beijing hospitals, he still found a way to pass me information. Both military and civilian hospitals in Beijing had hidden SARS patients from the inspectors. One hospital moved the sick out of their ward to a hotel; another piled them into ambulances and drove them around the city until inspectors left. By that time, Jiang's courage had inspired other doctors and officials to speak out. Though most did so anonymously, they did so in numbers great enough to confirm the hidden patients. On April 20, Beijing bumped up its official SARS case count nearly tenfold and fired both the health minister and Beijing's mayor. The SARS outbreak spread to four continents before it was stopped in July 2003.

For a brief period, Jiang was treated as a national hero. As Beijing's streets emptied out in what looked like a foreshadowing of 2020, Jiang's name appeared on the front pages of China's leading newspapers. Pictures of him popped up on billboards near my office. I couldn't formally interview him, but he'd occasionally ride his bike to the hotel tea house to chat. He'd bring along things he thought I should read. I'd tell him about my reporting.

I suspect it was in part the astonishing efficacy of his SARS revelations and his avoidance of any serious retribution or punishment that emboldened Jiang to try again. The following spring would be the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Jiang had spent the intervening decade and a half trying to process the outrage he felt at witnessing the violent deaths of civilians at the hands of the military he served. Jiang's hospital had been one of the closest to the area where the most killing had occurred. The 18 operating rooms he directed fielded 89 gunshot victims in the space of just two hours. In February of 2004, he sent a letter to China's top leaders (and again to the international press) describing what he had witnessed, recounting his conversations with Party elders about their regret and calling for the official "verdict" on the massacre to be overturned.

This time, the consequences were swift and severe. Jiang and his wife Dr. Hua Zhongwei were detained. I would learn later they were subjected to a terrifying and exhausting period of daily interrogation and indoctrination. In Jiang's case, some of the focus was on trying to convince him he had imagined what he had witnessed in his operating room, images he'd said "he would never forget as long as he lived."

Eventually, unrepentant but shaken, he was allowed to return home under close surveillance that would tighten and loosen for the rest of his life. The lightness I'd seen in him during that first interview remained undimmed. We met for lunch near my house in 2005 or 2006 and he joked that his newly undyed white hair was "more truthful" now that he'd gone "au naturale." He showed up dressed in a crisp shirt at my engagement party in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. He was en route to watch an Olympic basketball match and regaled a group of us with tales of his exploits on his high school team.

We last met in December of 2015 at what by that point was "our hotel." As usual, he'd ridden his bike to our meeting. He brought along a small laptop and spent much of our time together showing me, with evident pride, pictures of recent surgeries he had performed. At the age of 84, he still loved being a doctor.

I can only imagine what it must have felt like for him to witness the outbreak and spread of COVID, the history repeating itself in the early days during the cover-up, the silencing of the whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang in Wuhan or the chaos that attended the end of China's "zero-COVID" policy that led to his own infection and likely to his death. I found myself wondering what might have happened if someone of his seniority had spoken out earlier in Wuhan. I wondered what he made of how badly the U.S. had handled its own outbreak.

Two decades since SARS and three long years into COVID, with the walls of secrecy and silence Jiang pierced now rebuilt, his funeral on March 15 was small and closed to the public. I have seen no mention of his death in China's official media. During the height of his celebrity in 2003 when people around China called him a hero, Jiang was fond of saying he'd be content to be remembered as a doctor who told the truth. We'll have to try.

Susan Jakes is editor-in-chief of ChinaFile, an online magazine published by Asia Society, and a senior fellow at Asia Society's Center for China Analysis.

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Susan Jakes