This is the hospital ward China's Ministry of Health doesn't want you to see. Here in the infectious-diseases section of Beijing's You'an Hospital, dozens and dozens of patients with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) are crammed into tiny rooms. "Every single one of us in this building is a SARS patient," says a nurse named Zhang, who worked at the People's Liberation Army Hospital No. 301 until 11 days ago when she was diagnosed with the disease and admitted to You'an. "There are at least 100 SARS patients here, if not several hundred. The conditions here are really bad. We're not allowed out of this room. We pee in this room, crap in this room and eat in the room. As far as I know, at least half of the patients here are doctors and nurses from other hospitals."
As a TIME reporter continued through the ward, another nurse who wouldn't give her name stopped him and explained, "Look, I'm not pushing you away. I do this for your own good. It's too dangerous here. Even we who work here don't know when we'll get it. Don't believe the government. They never tell you the truth. They say it's a deadly disease with 4% mortality? Are you kidding me? The death rate is at least 25%. In this hospital alone, there are more than 10 patients dead already."
China, flush from having won the rights to host both the Beijing 2008 Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, is presenting a rosy, reformist face to the rest of the world. But the nation's handling of the deadly SARS epidemic, which is believed to have originated in southern Guangdong province last November, shows that behind closed doors, Beijing can be as secretive as ever. Extensive reports from local doctors suggest that the country's health-care system remains hostage to a government that values power and public order above human lives. "You foreigners value each person's life more than we do because you have fewer people in your countries," says a Shanghai respiratory specialist, who sits on an advisory committee dealing with epidemic diseases. "Our primary concern is social stability, and if a few people's deaths are kept secret, it's worth it to keep things stable."
But Beijing's emergency plan may be backfiring spectacularly with SARS, which has burst out of China's national boundary to kill 119 people and infect 2,960 people worldwide by the end of last week. And even as the deadly pneumonia proliferates across the world--Africa is the latest continent afflicted with the bug--China continues to massively underreport its SARS epidemic. As late as last Saturday, China's health authorities continued to stick to an accounting of 60 SARS deaths and about 1,300 cases--even though China's Premier Wen Jiabao visited You'an Hospital, where medical staff say the full caseload there has not been incorporated into the figures.