The correct secret

Discretion and hypertransparency in Chinese biosecurity

in Focaal
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  • 1 Brown University katherine_mason@brown.edu
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Abstract

In this article I argue that the global biosecurity project that arose out of the events of the SARS epidemic of 2003 created a new balance of secrecy and transparency within the public health arm of the Chinese state. In an effort to meet national and international demands for greater transparency in support of a “common good,” local public health officials engaged in what I call hypertransparency. This hypertransparency took two forms: the real-time online sharing of disease incidence data within the public health bureaucracy, and the over-performance of disease fighting strategies in front of a wider local and global public. Because local Chinese officials interpreted the “common good” differently from their international partners, neither of these efforts succeeded in erasing the crucial role that local officials continued to play in determining what should and should not be shared, and with whom. Secrecy continued to be an important component of China’s securitization efforts, with hypertransparency ultimately concealing more than it revealed.

Contributor Notes

Katherine A. Mason is assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. Her research addresses issues in medical anthropology, bio-ethics, global health, science and technology studies, China studies, and gender studies. Her first book, Infectious change: Reinventing Chinese public health after an epidemic, based on field-work she conducted in southeastern China on the professionalization of public health in China following the 2003 SARS epidemic, was published with Stanford University Press in 2016. Email: katherine_mason@brown.edu

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

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