More Thrills Than Skills – A Half-Life in Journalism, Part 115

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is to be published March 1 next year, by Kennedy & Boyd, Glasgow, and available from

One of the better features of digital photography is that the pictures you have taken can be reviewed immediately. So, at the police station, it’s not necessary to indulge in all that unfriendly opening of the camera and seizure of unprocessed film. The officer on duty reviews my pictures of the day. They’re all inoffensive stuff until we come to that mysterious sign.

Eventually, I am waved off from the police station, still none the wiser to what has been going on. Much later, I learn that the street where I took the ‘offending photograph’ runs past the Leadership Compound, home to offices and homes of the city’s party hierarchy.

I later learn that you can get excellent aerial photographs from the upper floors of the nearby Hengshan Hotel. And without any interference from anybody . . . So if you want any pictures, you know where to come.

SARS had an enormous impact on the city. When appreciation of the scale and threat level of the disease reached Shanghai, it reacted: late in the day, but with resolution.

Public places were closed, both by order of the city government and due to financial imperatives as customers and visitors faded away. The world-famous Peace Hotel closed its doors – something it had not even had cause to do during the Sino-Japanese or Second World Wars.

The Great World entertainment centre pulled down the iron gates and stuck up a handwritten closure notice. The May holiday was cancelled and the movement of people in and out of the city savagely curtailed.

The handling of the crisis at this stage confirmed very much the latent power and organisational ability of the Chinese state. Monitoring the movements of travellers – local or foreign – was put in the hands of the existing but little-used pyramid political power structure.

At the base of the pyramid are the neighbourhood committees with chairpersons in virtually every street. These became the channels of information, regulation and control – both receiving orders from above and reporting back. It proved to be singularly successful in ensuring that movement was curtailed: persons travelling into and out of Shanghai were identified by eagle-eyed local denizens of the peoples’ committees – often within hours of their arrival.

They were served with quarantine notices, had their temperatures taken twice a day for up to fourteen days and were generally monitored. My girlfriend, recently returned from a couple of weeks in Sri Lanka, a notable SARS-free zone, was ruthlessly included in this monitoring process.

Effectively, local leaders long emasculated suddenly found they had a distinct and vital role to play. It was energetically taken up at this local level, these actions endorsed and supported by calls to duty and patriotism broadcast on television, the subject of pop songs and ballads, and long articles in the press.

The foreign staff on The Shanghai Daily were interviewed by a journalist from a sister paper, the mass market Xinmin Evening News. We were asked if we were frightened of SARS in a city with public places closed and where you could, all of a sudden, get a seat on a normally crowded metro train.

Of course, we said no. The statistical chances of catching SARS in a city of 16 million or so with ten confirmed cases seemed laughably minute. Our confidence, of course, got big billing in the local press.