About Face:Peace Corps, China, and SARS

 The truth will out.

 The truth will out.  

And Chinese officials are finally realizing it.  During the last month, news concerning the increasing spread of the SARS epidemic surfaced daily to discredit the government's former claims of everything being "under control."  In an effort to put China's best "developing nation" face forward, Chinese leaders have instead invited denunciations with their attempts to mask the truth.  But lately, it seems the government may have finally realized that the severity of the health problem is more real and more important than any loss of mianzi.  

Mianzi, a concept most often translated as "face," permeates every level of social interaction in China, making the most ordinary relationship highly political.  As one of 68 Peace Corps Volunteers recently evacuated from China because of SARS, I do not speak alone when I say that proper consideration of mianzi was crucial to our efficacy as teachers of English and environmental awareness.  Indeed, a considerable amount of our pre-service training was spent on understanding this "cross-cultural" phenomenon.  We were cautioned against causing any loss of mianzi to our school leaders, which could result from simply declining a last-minute dinner invitation.  Too much loss of mianzi almost certainly guaranteed an uneasy cooperation.   

Imagine, then, the effect of Peace Corps China's mass exodus last month.  News that SARS had spread to Sichuan Province-the location of the first Peace Corps China Volunteers and still the province with the largest number of Volunteers-broke on April 3.  On April 4, all volunteers were notified of an immediate evacuation from China and, by April 7, all 68 volunteers had arrived in the states, SARS-free.  Cooperative as my school's leadership had been in helping my site mate and me leave, they made clear that our leaving on such short notice was not only detrimental but also unnecessary.  At our send-off dinner, a vice principal of the school iterated again and again that SARS was nothing to worry about, that it was all "under control," and the worst of it was over.  (According to his sources, the worst had occurred over Spring Festival-in early February.)  Over dinner, we all expressed our hopes that SARS would be quickly controlled, thereby allowing us a speedy return to China.   

But Peace Corps' return to China is not that simple: the containment, even the elimination, of SARS from China is not enough in itself to bring Peace Corps back.  Peace Corps may want to return to China as soon as possible, but the Chinese government may have something to say about that.   

Peace Corps sent the first group of trainees to China in June 1989, who, following the Tiananmen Square incident, were pulled out.  It was not until 1993 that volunteers began to serve in China.  Since 1995, a new group of volunteers has been sent to China every year.  The year 2003 was to be one of great expansion for the Peace Corps China program as well: the goal had been to double the number of volunteers in China with this summer's entering class of trainees.  Since 1999, the Peace Corps China program had endured a series of political incidents that have not necessitated evacuation: the Belgrade Embassy bombing, the Hainan Island spy plane incident, and 9/11 and the ensuing anti-American backlash. Interestingly, the Peace Corps China program has been suspended now not because of anything that the United States has done (or can be blamed for doing), but because of China's failure to acknowledge the genesis of something over which it had no control.  Had China's leaders admitted a problem in November when the disease first surfaced, they would not have had to sacrifice mianzi with mea culpa now.  Ironically, it was the desire to preserve mianzi that has created such embarrassment for the Chinese government today.  

As I prepared to leave China, I was asked by a Chinese national why I couldn't just trust the Chinese health ministry when it said that SARS was under control.  I chose not to answer.  I wanted to spare her the loss of mianzi.  But now, she-and her government-are feeling the burn from a cover-up that has exploded.  Peace Corps called them on their bluff by pulling us out last month.  How much time will it take China to overcome their embarrassment, put aside mianzi and ego, and invite Peace Corps Volunteers back?  

Lately, Chinese leaders have come to understand that the truth hurts, and badly, too.  But if their recent actions indicate any change to centuries of valuing pride over pragmatism, Peace Corps Volunteers may find themselves back in crowded classrooms all over western China before long. 


Frances Chang is a former Assistant Editor of The National Interest and served as an English instructor at Hexi University in Zhangye, Gansu Province.