China Syndrome

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-08-18
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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When the SARS virus broke out in China in January 2003, Karl Taro Greenfeld was the editor of Time Asiain Hong Kong, just a few miles from the epicenter of the outbreak. After vague, initial reports of terrified Chinese boiling vinegar to ?purify? the air, Greenfeld and his staff soon found themselves immersed in the story of a lifetime. Deftly tracking a mysterious viral killer from the bedside of one of the first victims to China?s overwhelmed hospital wards?from cutting-edge labs where researchers struggle to identify the virus to the war rooms at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva? China Syndrometakes readers on a gripping ride that blows through the Chinese government?s effort to cover up the disease . . . and sounds a clarion call warning of a catastrophe to come: a great viral storm potentially more deadly than any respiratory disease since the influenza of 1918.


China Syndrome
The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic

Chapter One

November 1, 2002
Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China
7 Infected, 0 Dead

Fang Lin, twenty-four, told me he had awakened to the usual cacophony: the bleat of a truck reversing; the steady, metallic thump of a jackhammer; the whining buzz of a steel saw; the driving in of nails; the slapping down of bricks; the irregular thumping—like sneakers in a dryer—of a cement mixer.

They were building—a skyscraper, a shopping mall, a factory, a new highway, an overpass, a subway, a train station—here, there, everywhere. Up and down the coast, from Shenzhen to Fujian to Shanghai to Tianjin, this was what you heard. Fang Lin had already become used to it. He had no choice, because the sound had become ubiquitous, as regular and familiar as the breath coming through his nostrils.

He had just arrived in Shenzhen, from Nanpo in Jiangxi province. The second son of a rice-farming family, he came of age during the era of reforms. The Cultural Revolution and the Great Helmsman were for him curious historical relics—Mao was the guy on the money—as relevant to Fang's life as Genghis Khan or Terra-cotta Warriors. Even the great events of his childhood were shrouded in the same obfuscating gauze of prehistory: Tiananmen represented in his mind nothing more than a square in Beijing. His parents, recalling the hardship of China's great upheavals of the fifties and sixties, were grateful to be allowed to farm their plot, raise their children, and pay their local officials for the right to slaughter their own chickens, ducks, and pigs. They even owned their ancestral plot now and could sell their harvest for cash. They'd bought a color television and were saving for a mobile phone. Having lived through decades of sacrifice and poverty, they were thrilled to be able to eat as much pork as they wanted and to watch pirated Hong Kong action pictures on their VCD players.

But if this first post-reform generation was happy to gaze at other people's better lives on their TV sets, then the second generation, Fang Lin's cohorts, were eager to inhabit those fancier images. As the second son, Fang didn't stand to inherit any of the family land. That would all go to his older brother, who was already married to a girl from the village with bad skin who seemed to go through a box of Choco Pies every day. She would become fat, Fang Lin warned his brother. But for their parents, even obesity remained a virtue. There had been no fat people before the reforms—the whole country then had subsisted on a starvation diet.

Li tu means, literally, to leave the land, to give up life as a cultivator for a nonfarming job. For Fang Lin, the decision to leave the land had been an easy one. He knew other second sons and first daughters who had gone south to make money. And it was money that mattered now, Fang Lin knew. Even Mao—or was it Deng?—had said, "To get rich is glorious." There was food in the village, but there was no money. Money was in the south, along the coasts, in the boomtowns he saw on television. China was becoming rich, but it was becoming rich around the edges while it stayed poor in the middle. For millions of Chinese trapped in the hinterlands, that meant hitting the road, hopping a bus, truck, or train to the coast and seeking employment in a factory or construction crew, restaurant or brothel. The newspapers dubbed it the Hundred Million Man March, and one boy or girl seemed to set out from the village every day to join it, especially in the early winter, after the harvest. Fang Lin borrowed five hundred kwai (RMB) from his brother, packed his extra shirt in a vinyl duffel bag that his sister-in-law's parents had received when they visited Nanchang with their work group five years earlier, and walked out of town to the road that ran along the river. He thumbed a ride with a truck, buying the driver a bowl of noodles at a gas station, and then caught a local bus south to Nanchang. He then paid a hundred kwai for an upper berth on a sleeper bus to Shenzhen. As soon as he was on board, he reclined and watched the TV embedded in the roof above the driver. But soon the bus was so thick with smoke that Fang Lin could barely make out the CCTV newscaster.

They rode for thirty-six hours, the villages gradually giving way to county seats and the rough farmland replaced by workshops and factories. By morning they were already in Guangzhou, rolling south along the Guan-Shen Highway, past multi-acre factory compounds with corrugated-roofed workshops that were bigger than Fang Lin's whole village, rice paddies and all. Entire mountains seemed to have been hollowed out for gravel and cement. There were stretches where the landscape was practically lunar, just a few stones, and hunched amid the swirling dust were a handful of shacks made of scavenged wood and cloth. Occasionally, a family farm would appear to be holding out between the encroaching factories and construction sites. Its crop—usually tropical fruit—was coated by a film of dust.

When Fang Lin looked at this, he says, he thought it was beautiful. Amazing. Progress. Soon, there would be no more farms at all. Just factories as far as the eye could see. How many people worked on a farm—one, maybe two? But in a factory, he could not begin to count.

At the central bus station in Shenzhen, Fang Lin found a red pay phone beside a cigarette stand and called the number he had for two other boys from his village, Du Chan and Huang Po, who had come south. In his thick Jiangxi accent, he asked the woman who answered if he could leave word for his friends. She told him he could leave a message, but it would be delivered only if the receiving party were willing to pay a kwai for the privilege.

China Syndrome
The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic
. Copyright © by Karl Greenfeld. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic by Karl Taro Greenfeld
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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