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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 January, 2004, 15:45 GMT
China follows Mao with mass cull

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

China is fighting the Sars virus through a Maoist-style "patriotic extermination campaign" against civet cats, badgers, raccoon dogs, rats and cockroaches.

But how does this latest mass cull compare with those of the 1950s, when Mao Zedong ordered the killing of what he called the country's biggest four evils - rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows?

The late Chinese leader's "four pests" campaign proved the Communist Party's power to mobilise China's millions of peasants but the results were often unfortunate.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong's mass extermination campaign went horribly wrong
The anti-sparrow campaign, for instance, was extremely effective but had tragic results.

Villagers were told to rush out to the fields, banging on pots and pans and screaming at the tops of their voices.

The sparrows took to the air, and as the pandemonium continued, stayed there, too terrified to land, until they dropped dead from exhaustion.

The only trouble was that sparrows are a vital link in the food chain and are particularly fond of locusts. With no sparrows left to eat them, there was a plague of locusts, the crops were ruined and millions of people died in the ensuing famine.

There are certain similarities with the present campaign, says Dai Qing, one of China's most prominent journalists and environmental activists.

Extreme measures

"Mao knew nothing about animals. He didn't want to discuss his plan or listen to experts. He just decided that the 'four pests' should be killed."

In the same way, today's rulers have rushed to adopt a radical, over-simplified solution without proper consultation, she told BBC News Online.

"The main difference is that Mao just wanted to show how great his revolution was, while officials in Guangdong are over-anxious to show they are doing something to look after the people's health.

"But while I don't approve of eating wild animals I also totally disagree with killing them as is being done now," she said.

Officials in Guangdong ordered the immediate killing of every civet cat in captivity in the province after researchers found that a man had fallen ill with a new strain of the Sars virus that is genetically similar to a strain found in civet cats.

The small, weasel-like animals - distantly related to the mongoose - are being removed from farms, markets and restaurants where they were bred as a culinary delicacy and put into vats of disinfectant and drowned, before being electrocuted and incinerated.

Civet in cage
China is systematically exterminating civet cats

But the mass slaughter may turn out to be counter-productive, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Killing the animals, and perhaps exposing their blood, is more dangerous than letting them remain alive, say WHO experts, and could also mean the destruction of valuable evidence.

There is no proof yet that civets carry the Sars virus, says the WHO, adding that the latest Sars case involving a 32-year-old TV producer remains an isolated one which does not constitute a public health emergency.

It is not only civets that are being targeted in the anti-Sars cull.

"We will start a patriotic health campaign to kill rats and cockroaches in order to give every place a thorough cleaning for the Lunar New Year," said Feng Liuxiang of the Guangdong health bureau.

Chinese New Year this year falls on 22 January and is a time when large numbers of people move around the country visiting their relatives, adding to fears that Sars could spread as it did last year, when almost 800 people in China died from the pneumonia-like disease.

Mainland China imposed restrictions last spring in response to preliminary research suggesting that Sars came from wild animals, but allowed sales to resume last autumn after complaints by people who farm civet cats and other exotic species.

This time officials appear determined to show they mean business.

While the Communist Party no longer exerts the same daily control over people's lives as it did under Mao, it still has the ability to mobilise and check up on them to a degree rarely seen outside China.

Partly because of effects of the reforms such as unemployment and migration (the Chinese authorities) are now reinvesting in social control
Bob Benewick, Sussex University

The appearance of Sars has lent new life to the old Neighbourhood Committees, which were starting to die out under the recent market-style reforms but which once reported to officials on the activities (and even the likely pregnancies) of every household.

The party has been trying to revive its activities at the grassroots level, which had started to atrophy, says Professor Bob Benewick of Sussex University.

He is co-author of a recent report called Nine Grannies with Eight Teeth Between Them - a reference to the old women who did much of the daily work of the neighbourhood committees, often involving no more than sitting in a doorway pretending to sleep while closely monitoring the street's comings and goings.

"Sars has meant that there has been plenty of opportunity to go round checking up on people's health, spraying their houses with disinfectant and that sort of thing," Professor Benewick told BBC News Online.

"This is a form of social control that goes back to the '50s. The neighbourhood committees are now known as community councils and to some extent they have been modernised, but essentially they still have the same old infrastructure and in some cases they have a lot of power," he said.

China's Maoist past helps explain the speed, thoroughness and aggression with which this week's cull is being carried out - and also the contrasting slowness and secrecy with which Chinese officials initially reacted last year.

"It's new wine in old bottles," says Professor Benewick. "Partly because of effects of the reforms such as unemployment and migration they are now reinvesting in social control."

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