The ruling Chinese Communist Party is clamping down on any public discussion of an outbreak of African swine fever among its pig population, shutting down social media accounts and detaining users who warn others not to eat pork.
On Aug. 25, a video of police detaining a woman in her home in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong went viral, with commenters focusing on the arbitrary detention of the woman by officers who said "because we are the police," when she asked them why she was being detained.
Local media reports indicated that the woman was detained for "rumor-mongering" after warning her social media friends not to eat pork or chicken because of the risk of disease in the wake of disastrous flooding in Shandong.
While her warning wasn't directly related to African swine flu, many others who have posted concerns to social media about the safety of consuming pork have had their accounts shut down, sources told RFA.
"She was talking about [the safety of eating pork] on a chat app when she was detained by police," a Shandong resident surnamed Liu said. "The party doesn't want the people talking; they want to shut down any information about this."
He said many people believe, via word of mouth, that the virus arrived in China via infected Russian pork.
"But all [the government] will do is shut you down and won't put out any announcements," he said. "They report it [internally] to disease prevention centers, but they won't tell the general public about it."
Ren Ruihong, former head of the medical assistance department at the Chinese Red Cross, said Chinese officials regard information about disease outbreaks and epidemics as a state secret.
"There is a total blackout on this right now; they are just not reporting it," Ren told RFA. "They are now detaining people for talking about this; you can't even talk about it on WeChat."
"People have been detained for talking about it on WeChat," Ren said.
Ren said some people fear that African swine flu could mutate to a form that could infect, and be transmittable between, humans.
"That was the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) ... so isolation is the safest form of prevention," Ren said.
China's public health procedures came under intense scrutiny after an official attempt to cover up the extent of the deadly SARS epidemic of 2003 was exposed by a military doctor in Beijing.
SARS spread from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong to other Asian countries and by the summer of 2003, when the disease was contained, more than 8,000 people had been infected and more than 900 had died, according to the World Health Organization.
The doctor was detained for several months in 2004 at an undisclosed location, while editors at a newspaper in the southern province of Guangdong that broke news about the SARS virus were also harassed and detained.
More cities affected?
Ren said the current epidemic may have already spread far beyond the cities indicated in official reports.
"Judging by the current speed that it is spreading, it should have reached many cities by now, but they may just not be saying anything," Ren said. "If it gets to Sichuan, that would be terrible, because it will mean that the entire Chinese pig supply chain is unsalvageable."
The China Center for Animal Health and Epidemiology found that the strain behind the current epidemic had gene sequences corresponding to a strain found in Georgia in 2007 and in Irkutsk, Russia last year.
An employee who answered the phone at the center declined a request for an interview.
"You need to keep checking the website of the Ministry of Agriculture," she said. "That's what we're doing; we don't have any other information than that ... so I can't answer your questions."
When asked if the African swine fever outbreak was linked to imported Russian pork, the employee said she had no knowledge of the research.
"I can't answer it because I didn't do the ... research in this area," she said.
An official at the Ministry of Agriculture denied that the epidemic had spread further than had been officially reported.
"There isn't any [African swine flu] in any other provinces ... so you don't believe official information channels, huh?" the official said. "Where are you calling from? If you have any knowledge of an outbreak, you can report it and we will verify it with you."
"Don't talk rubbish about things you don't know about."
Authorities have reported 13 outbreaks across the country since last month.
Forbidden to worry
Former top Communist Party aide Bao Tong hit out at the administration of President Xi Jinping over the information blackout.
"There have been a number of outbreaks of African swine flu across China in the past month or more, and all the authorities have done is issue a notice telling people it's OK to eat pork ... and that they shouldn't worry," Bao wrote in a commentary for RFA's Mandarin Service.
"Then ... well, there was no 'then.' They never made any more information public after that," he wrote. "Why? Because they are afraid to lose face, afraid to follow this up, afraid of questions about who is responsible, afraid of social instability?"
"The authorities' thoughts and secrets aren't for us ordinary mortals to know. We are forbidden to worry," Bao said.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man by RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.