For almost a year, scientists have wondered how the coronavirus pandemic started, but little information has come out of China.

The Associated Press found out why. In a rare leak of thousands of pages of government documents, Beijing correspondent Dake Kang found that orders were issued directly from President Xi Jinping to clamp down on any research that did not produce the outcomes China wanted. China also denied entry to international scientists, impeding the kind of global cooperation that unraveled the mystery of what started SARS almost two decades ago.

Through dozens of interviews and a review of documents and emails both public and private, Kang and London reporter Maria Cheng put together an account of how the hidden hunt for the virus was playing out — and where it had been shut down. This kind of narrative would be difficult to piece together from any country; it was especially so in China, given the difficult access and the constant threat of reprisals. But taken together with our earlier stories, the narrative completed the picture of how China’s culture of secrecy and top-down management had allowed the virus to spread faster.

China Combo

At left, a group claiming to be local villagers use vehicles to block the roads leading to a mineshaft near Danaoshan in southern China’s Yunnan province, Dec. 1, 2020. The mine shaft once harbored bats infected with the closest known relative of the COVID-19 virus. At right, people look inside the abandoned Wanling cave near Manhaguo village in southern China’s Yunnan province, Dec. 2, 2020. Villagers said the cave had been used as a sacred altar presided over by a Buddhist monk — precisely the kind of contact between bats and people that alarms scientists.

AP Photo / Ng Han Guan

In a key element of the story, Beijing video journalist Sam McNeil and photographer Ng Han Guan braved authorities in an attempt to visit the bat caves of Yunnan province, experiencing firsthand the kind of obstruction AP was writing about — the pair was tailed by multiple cars, ordered to leave and at one point chased through a shopping mall. Despite the intense pressure, they learned that a visiting research team had its samples confiscated at a major bat cave. They also managed to get into a bat cave, adding some critical color to the story.

The result was a riveting read with strong photos and video, and the private documents embedded in the text. The story scored well, with heavy reader engagement, and The Washington Post published an editorial about the story.