Wednesday, October 19

China Puzzle Cheat Sheet. Egad, what would Dashiell Hammett say!

It has come to my attention that some visitors don't want to actually read the essays I posted about the China mystery illness but want to know how it all came out in the end. This must be the same people who read movie reviews that publish the spoiler ending. Maybe even the types who write the spoiler ending.

Now that I have that grumble off my chest, I'm reluctant to give away the "ending," to the extent there is one, because the essays are as much about news/data analysis as a mystery illness outbreak in China. So I'm hoping new readers can find the time (maybe the summer of 2006?) to look through the essays.

The intense time pressures under which American workers now operate put them in much the same position as a defense intelligence analyst or forward observer when they take in the day's news. In a world where thousands of news reports clamor daily for attention, which ones are vital to investigate?

And civilians who follow defense-related news face the same tough question that police and intelligence analysts wrestle with daily: how much meaning should be assigned to data? At what point can data be considered "information" -- data that is valuable to an objective?

The 9/11 attack illustrated both the danger of tuning out the news because "it can't be trusted" and over-reliance on "trustworthy" news sources. Four years out from 9/11, Americans on the cutting edge of news analysis (including many bloggers and their readers) have felt their way to a middle ground between those two extremes, which is highly empirical; i.e., they're looking at news stories first as data rather than information and thus, they're willing to keep adjusting their view of the data as more of it accumulates.

The China Mystery Illness essays are a journey through that type of news analysis, and a case study in how it unfolds. Pundita is not a bystander in all this; the essays follow my unfolding views on the reports. So there is an aspect to the essays that appeals to mystery novel fans.

However, I'll grant this is not news about an apple pie bake-off we're analyzing. It's serious stuff, just about as serious as it gets, and with implications for US defense and foreign policy. So it's not fair to new readers to introduce the essays without providing more information about the content.

I was sharply reminded of that yesterday while reading comments about the Chinese Puzzle essay that were posted on Dan Riehl's Riehl World View, which had linked to the essay. A reader had criticisms even though it was clear from his comments that he'd only read the introduction and not the Mystery Illness file.

So I wrote replies to the reader's comments and posted them at Dan's blog. I also decided to post the earliest replies to this blog. In this way, readers clamoring for a cheat sheet have at least a rough outline of the issues addressed in the essays.

Those who want to read all the reader's comments, click here. (While you're visiting, be sure check out Dan's link on Donald Rumsfeld's questions about China's figures on defense spending!) Then scroll to comments by "pkt" on Dan's blog. Here I only quote one part of reader "pkt's" comments.
[...] "It is interesting to note that after SARS broke out in China, there were many paranoid numbnuts in the authoritarian country (I'm an American who lives part of the year in China) that believed that SARS was a U.S. bio-engineered attack on China. [...]"
Pundita replies:

Many more Chinese suspect that the SARS virus is an experiment that jumped a biowar lab in China. Unfortunately, there are aspects of the situation that tend to support the suspicion:

First, even Beijing eventually stopped denying that the first infection had surfaced in a military hospital in China.

Second, the SARS virus seems to be a "cocktail" of older highly infectious diseases. (Unlike the mystery illness that broke out this year, medical facilities outside China have been able to obtain samples of the virus because the outbreak spread outside China.)

Third, Beijing's initial draconian attempts to cover up the outbreak, which put millions of Chinese lives at risk. This was followed by Beijing's elaborate campaign of denial and deception, which put even more millions of lives at risk -- both in China and around the world.

The suspicions were fanned this year because of a sensational speech reportedly made by a former high-ranking officer in China's military. He said in the clearest terms that biowar against the United States (with a vaccine to protect Chinese from the bioweapon) should be pursued because in coming years China will need more room to expand and the North American continent is the logical choice for China's overflow to settle down.

The source for the speech (The Epoch Times) is controversial, but it fits with the information in the book Unrestricted Warfare, which was published with the blessing of Jiang Zemin and China's military.

In any case, Beijing's draconian attempts to cover up a 'mystery' outbreak this year repeated the pattern of their actions in response to the SARS outbreak. And in this situation China refused to share medical samples. This is despite all the warnings they had been given by WHO, and the world community at large, after the SARS outbreak.

Thus, defense agencies (and intelligence analysts such as John Loftus) take the mystery outbreak very seriously, as well they should. What I did in the series of essays Dan linked to was sort through the complex and confusing reports about the outbreak, in the attempt nail down exactly what was actually known (as versus rumored and suspected).

This cleared some of the fog surrounding the reports; e.g., speculations about the most alarming claims about the nature of the mystery outbreak. Yet at this time, there is no way to rule out that the mystery illness was created in a biowar lab. Just as there is no way to rule out that the illness is caused by a 'natural' mutation of a virus (or virus/bacteria combination).

In other words, we're working blindfolded because no medical samples are available. However, militaries that use spy satellites are not entirely blindfolded. It's easy to put two and two together from my notes on Loftus' report (which form my first post on the topic). We can safely assume that the US military (and/or the CIA) was concerned about images picked up by the satellites.

So, whatever the true nature of the outbreak, something very alarming had been going on in Sichuan -- something Beijing tried to cover up. Something which seemingly had a connection to an outbreak that China's health ministry eventually claimed was strep suis bacteria. That diagnosis that flew in the face of logic on several levels, and contradicted many anecdotal reports about the symptoms of the illness.

So unfortunately, it's not paranoia that keeps the US military, China's populace, and any informed observer deeply worried about China's biowar program.
* * * * * *
I don't ignore or dispute China's role in spreading highly infectious disease. Under dispute are claims that a mystery illness appearing in Guangdong and Sichuan province this year is a strain of Ebola virus and worse, according to one anonymous report -- it's a "doomsday" virus made up in part of Bubonic plague, a strain of Ebola, and a virus (or bacteria) so strange that the doctor who described it said he couldn't name it.

After weeks of analyzing the claims -- an effort joined by translators, physicians, etc., and several readers who enjoy doing research on the Internet -- I was able to call the terrifying claims into serious question.

What's more, I was able to point out what no one in their panic had noticed: because there was absolutely no medical evidence available to determine the nature of the mystery outbreak, it wasn't possible to determine whether the outbreak was a disease!

I noted that it could have been an illness due to poisoning -- perhaps a poison substance released from an industrial accident, which are widespread in China.

As to whether there was anything about the described symptoms to suggest this possibility -- yes! Plenty! But my point was that without medical evidence in hand, it was silly to speculate, and equally silly to brand the outbreak an "infectious disease."

Yale University Online, and others who should have known better, got roped into giving serious consideration to the Ebola virus claims because they didn't do the slug work of analyzing all the published reports about the Ebola claim.

The series of essays listed in the Pundita post that Dan linked to tells the story. The story is a strong reminder to news consumers (and intelligence analysts) to do your homework -- and to keep your wits about you while taking in terrifying news.

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