Beijing's bind

April 13, 2003

ONE OF Mao Tse-tung's many famed aphorisms - the one about political power growing from the barrel of a gun - was a truth gleaned from staging a revolution and founding a new China more than 50 years ago. More and more, however, his successors are finding that success at building national economic power ultimately hinges on the free flow of information. And to put it in Marxist terms, therein lies the central contradiction for China's receding totalitarianism.

The latest glaring example of this is the lethal flu-like epidemic that Chinese authorities essentially unleashed on their own people and the world by keeping secret its initial outbreak in Southern China last fall.

While southern Guangdong province's masses desperately sought herbal remedies in response to the spreading disease, there was no public health warning from Chinese authorities. When the World Health Organization made inquiries in February, Beijing said all was under control. Even in recent weeks, long after SARS - severe acute respiratory syndrome - was running rampant in Hong Kong and jumping elsewhere, Chinese officials have been accused of stonewalling.

It's obvious that when it comes to identifying a new virus, developing a diagnostic test and formulating effective treatment, timely information is of the essence. Here's a short list of some of the sweeping consequences of China's failure to come clean:

As of Friday, more than 100 people worldwide had succumbed to SARS, among almost 3,000 cases in almost 20 nations.

The disease is having a deep economic impact on Hong Kong, Asia's hub and China's front office. Mainland investors are nervous, about the epidemic and Beijing's response. Wal-Mart, which imports $10 billion worth of Chinese products a year, has stopped all trips by its employees to China - in keeping with a warning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid nonessential travel there. In Maryland, the state trade office even postponed a visit here by Chinese and Asian business representatives.

International airlines, their trans-Atlantic routes down because of the Iraq war, now are suffering across the Pacific. Within Asia, Malaysia won't let anyone fly in from China or Hong Kong, and Singapore is quarantining all lower-wage workers arriving from SARS-affected countries.

That list doesn't include perhaps the most long-lasting impact of China's mishandling of SARS: the further stretching of the slim remaining bonds of trust between the Chinese people and their rulers. Evidence of that came last week when a senior military physician - a longtime Communist Party member and a former director of China's top military hospital - boldly spoke against the regime, saying it was still lying about the prevalence of SARS.

The Chinese people long ago proved they can withstand a lot of abuse from Beijing. Even as deep popular cynicism about the party pervades Chinese society, the party still is credited for having brought about dramatic gains in the nation's average life expectancy and, during at least the last two decades, its standards of living.

But for many Chinese - and foreign investors and traders - China's failures with SARS ought to highlight further the question of whether Beijing can sustain the national drive for better lives while clinging to tight political control. In today's world, guns may still be important, but the foundation of that power is economic, and that thrives on information - and information, in turn, flows from transparency. That is Beijing's bind.

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