How to write a generic China bird flu story

Bird flu may not be sweeping through the human population, but it’s sure sweeping through the media. It seems that every newspaper and wire service has packed their Beijing reporter off to the poultry-infested boonies of China (which begin right outside Beijing’s fifth ring road) to report on the dire and pox-ridden scene in the Chinese countryside. As a result, the stories have begun to take on a certain formulaic feeling.

As a public service to my readership, I’d like to present Imagethief’s handy, paragraph-by-paragraph guide to the standard China bird flu feature story. When it finally achieves Enlightenment and begins recognizing bloggers, the Pulitzer committee knows where to reach me.

1) Alarmist headline:

Rural Chinese farms perfect incubators for planet-destroying superbug!

2) Rustic introductory scene to demonstrate China’s backwardness and ignorance:

November 8, Choukeng, China: In the remote village of Choukeng, chicken farmer Shen Jifen wades through a veritable lake of chickenshit.

“Chickens, chickens, chickens. It’s all we know in this village,” said the 103 year old, dirt-poor illiterate farmer as he lazily swatted a wheezing, mortally ill chicken off of his head. “We raise chickens, we eat chickens, we wear chickens. I treat these chickens like my own children. Except for the slaughtering.”

3) Inducement of disgust to drive home backwardness and ignorance:

So numerous are the chickens in Choukeng that the entire village is three feet deep in warm chickenshit. To get to market or visit neigbors, villagers pole small, flat-bottomed boats through the fetid chickenshit. The flimsy houses are built on stilts, and anything heavier than a chicken rapidly sinks.

“Last year three people drowned in chickenshit,” said Shen. “We buried them in coffins of baked chickenshit. It’s our primitive and destitute way.”

4) Sinister hint of biological menace, amplified by rural backwardness:

But now the stream of chickenshit is drying up as Choukeng’s once nearly infinite supply of chickens begins to drop dead. Avian flu has arrived here, carried by the Siberian booze-cranes that stop to feed in Choukeng as they follow their migratory route from Smolensk to winter drinking grounds in Lan Kwai Fong.

Instead of culling their sickening flocks or incinerating the dead birds, the villagers of Choukeng are unwittingly creating an environment ripe for the rise of  pandemic bird flu.

“When chickens die, we collect the blood and rub it all over our bodies,” said Shen. “The blood of chickens that have died from infection is a well known cure for wind.”

5) Raise the specter of government incompetence:

Now the Chinese government has arrived in Choukeng to manage a cull of sick poultry. But instead of helping, they may be making the problem worse. Local officials are using compensation money provided by the central government and intended for farmers to stage bloody, baijiu-lubricated cockfights and to build the world’s largest, free-standing concrete chicken statue in a bid to attract more tourists to the impoverished region.

6) Gratuitous journalist abuse:

A journalist who attempted to sneak into one of the cockfighting sessions disguised in a chicken suit was detained by plainclothes police and forced to write ‘I am not a giant chicken’ 1000 times on a blackboard, before he was stripped of all clothing and possessions, sprayed with superglue, rolled in glitter, and turfed out of town with the Chinese words for “dangerous lunatic” written on his forehead in permanent marker.

7) Alarm bells from the international health bureaucracy:

“They’re making a righteous screw-job of the whole thing up there,” said Bjorn Neutral-Öbserver, a Beijing-based representative of the World Health Organization. “The Ministry of Health would cover up news of acne if it could get away with it.”

Mr. Neutral-Öbserver stressed, however, that bird flu remains confined to poultry and migratory birds.

“For the moment, it’s still perfectly safe to visit remote, unsanitary shitholes infested with thuggish police,” he said before boarding a plane bound for his apocalypse bunker buried deep in the Swiss Alps.

8) Vox populi:

Foreigners living in China are paying little heed to the brewing health crisis in the hinterlands.

“What? What are you talking about? What’s this about chickenshit? And why do you have ‘dangerous lunatic’ written on your forehead?” commented a Beijing based PR consultant and blogger who gave his name only as ‘Imagethief’.

9) Tear-jerking rural finale:

But in remote and smelly Choukeng village, the crisis is already all too real.

“When all the chickens die, the lake of chickenshit will dry up and become hard,” said a wistful Shen. “Our way of life will come to an end. And it will be really hard to pole those little boats around.”

Bonus prediction: The bird flu story du jour is the closure of live poultry markets in Beijing. Later this week, we’ll hear about black-market sales of live poultry. You heard it here first.

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