Deal with devil proves deadly

April 18, 2003|By Steve Friess

BEIJING -- Just when it looked as if China was about to emerge as the superpower of choice for a world appalled and outraged by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, along comes a killer virus to remind everyone why a superpower ruled by dictatorship can be hazardous to everyone's health.

Indeed, it's hard not to pity the astoundingly poor luck and timing for the Communist leaders in Beijing of the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and the subsequent, predictably bungled cover-up. Instead of stepping out of the shadow of what appears to be a hated United States, this regime has magically reminded the planet in just a few weeks that it is untrustworthy and selfish -- and why that matters.

That's an impressive feat, considering how successful the Chinese had been in the past decade at earning global love -- and even a Summer Olympics -- by opening its burgeoning economy to world trade while studiously avoiding criticizing most foreign governments.

The deal was that China would keep its opinions to itself and allow the world to stake claims in the Chinese gold rush. In turn, other nations would let slide Beijing's horrifying crackdowns on freedoms of religion, assembly and speech.

Other governments have rationalized that the firm Communist control is necessary to maintain social stability, which, in turn, is necessary to keep profit margins growing. All that capitalism, the best-intended thinking goes, will naturally lead to political freedom.

But now, with a perplexing coronavirus that has spread to more than 3,200 people in 23 countries, the deal with the devil is paying its miserable dividends.

China sat by idly for four months as SARS cases accumulated in its southern province, hoping nobody would notice so as to avoid embarrassment. The lack of a free press to alert the public to the developing pattern not only cost untold Chinese lives but put at risk tourists, business managers and other expatriates. Among them are citizens of nations that didn't believe that Beijing's oppression affected them.

As SARS spilled over to the rest of the world, Beijing tried damage control rather than infectious disease control, and failed at both. Health officials here have announced such laughably low infection numbers that one irate Chinese doctor was compelled to take the brave step of telling Time that he personally knew of more cases in one Beijing hospital than the total claimed for the entire capital.

At the same time, a ridiculous effort continues to insist that SARS didn't originate in China. World Health Organization officials were muttering privately early this month that the Chinese had been slow to provide samples of the virus from mainland victims. Those samples, once obtained, showed the Chinese SARS has almost identical DNA as that found elsewhere. But a mainland doctor told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post on Sunday, "I do not share the view that Hong Kong infections came from Guangdong," the mainland province where the first cases were reported.

The health panic brought on by SARS is a result of Beijing's lack of credibility. Even now, the state-run English-language China Daily keeps up its don't-worry-be-happy tenor by showing pictures of carefree Western tourists enjoying the sights and quoting alleged experts predicting little financial fallout for the overall Chinese economy.

Suddenly, the world's investors recall why China is still a risky place to open a franchise or build a factory. If Beijing will lie about something as serious as its own public health crisis, how trustworthy are the delirious economic statistics it publishes? And if there's no democratic way to remove corrupt leaders, isn't corruption also a real threat to that cherished "stability," too?

Just as suddenly, the United States doesn't look so bad. President Bush may have flouted world opinion, but he did it openly and used American might to depose a brutal megalomaniac.

The United States may be arrogant, but China is untrustworthy. SARS has only just begun to teach the world which is worse.

Steve Friess is a U.S.-based free-lance journalist.

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