For over a week, we've been following reports from Boxun, a Chinese-language news site, about thousands of animal deaths (and up to 121 human deaths) attributed to avian flu in Qinghai province. Henry Niman at Recombinomics has done remarkable work in translating the reports using Babelfish; the results have been far from grammatical and equally far from reassuring.
Having lived and taught in China, and maintained contacts with Chinese colleagues, I was surprised that any Chinese website could actually post such dramatic news while the government was denying any human cases. Yet the reports were there, along with a couple of blurry photos apparently showing thousands of dead wildfowl.
I googled Boxun and was immediately surprised a second time to find it has a .com URL, rather than a Chinese .cn tag. The third surprise was to see photos from Tiananmen Square on the site, including the famous one of the man standing in front of the tanks.
This was not a site in China. Eventually I learned that Boxun is based in the US, and is apparently run by dissident Chinese.
The questions now are these: How did Boxun get this information? How were people in Qinghai able to gather news of these animal and human deaths, and how were they then able to email or phone their news outside China? Doing so could get them into big trouble with the Public Security Bureau, whose skill with computer communications created the Great Firewall of China in the first place. And indeed, Niman today is reporting a number of arrests in Qinghai.
The Chinese government has not gained a good reputation for honesty and transparency about public-health matters, as we saw in the SARS outbreak. But Boxun News now needs to be demonstrably honest and transparent about its own stories. I note that the English-language section has no reports on the avian flu story, despite its obvious importance.
If the Qinghai story is true, it urgently needs corroboration. If it's false, it's just a coals-to-Newcastle attempt to discredit Beijing on the part of exiled dissidents whose honesty is no greater than Beijing's. And no one is served well by political exploitation of an impending pandemic.
June 7 update: I've added a link on the left to Boxun's English page—which still has no stories about Qinghai. But I hear that they hope to offer translations soon.