SARS outbreak exposing flaws in China regime

Crisis: A deadly disease that worries the public and threatens the economy poses a crucial test for Beijing.

April 23, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - For all the challenges the Chinese Communist Party has faced since opening the nation to the world a quarter-century ago, only the emergence of a strange new disease known as SARS has managed to expose so many of the government's flaws - and to force public admissions of wrongdoing and firings of top officials.

The crisis has cast a glaring spotlight on the government's secretive and often-duplicitous officials, its lack of accountability, its lessening grip on information and its inadequate public services. With Beijing now acknowledging 2,158 SARS cases and 97 deaths, and many more expected to surface, the government is under severe pressure to contain an outbreak it has mishandled from the beginning.

If the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, were to grow out of control for many months, it could cripple the fast-growing economy, which might be the gravest concern to the ruling elite. A faltering economy would deal a blow to the nascent middle class and leave millions of laid-off state employees and migrant workers out of jobs, threatening domestic stability.

"That's how scary this situation is to the Chinese leadership," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. "The worst scenario could be truly devastating."

For now, the full political and social impact of the outbreak in China is as unknowable as its public health effects.

Since 1949, the Communist Party has maintained its tight reins on power during the famine of the Great Leap Forward, the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, the democracy protests of 1989, and, in recent years, mounting discontent about the ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

But this time, with their health and livelihoods at stake, it is clear that people from all walks of life care more than they have in past crises about how the government responds.

"The impact of it is as significant as Tiananmen," said Li Xiguang, a journalism professor at Qinghua University, referring to the 1989 crackdown on democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. "But the difference is that Tiananmen was more political, in that it was a political protest and the Chinese people didn't take it very personally. But this one, everyone is worried and everyone is taking it personally, because it's about their own life, their own safety."

This time, as it has never done with Tiananmen, the ruling party has made extraordinary conciliatory confessions to the people, giving a few Chinese observers hope that this could become China's Chernobyl, an internationally embarrassing disaster that forces the government to become more open and accountable.

Considering that the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant 17 years ago marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, that could be an unsettling lesson for China's new generation of leaders, headed by General Secretary Hu Jintao. They took over in November, as the new virus quietly began to emerge in southern China's Guangdong province.

Guangdong officials knew up to four months ago that they were contending with a dangerous new disease but failed to warn the public before Chinese New Year on Feb. 1, when tens of millions of Chinese travel near and far to celebrate with their families. The disease spread quickly in Guangdong in late January and early February, and soon began spreading around China, to nearby Hong Kong, then around the globe.

Throughout, the state-run news media was virtually silent, under orders from the government not to report on SARS in China. As the disease spread through Beijing and various provinces in March, government officials claimed that China was safe for travel and the virus under control. Senior officials continued to make such claims even after the news blackout was partially lifted early this month.

Meanwhile, people spread rumors and information, including via mobile phone and e-mail, beyond the government's control. And foreign news accounts hammered Beijing with reports casting serious doubt on the government's numbers, including embarrassing tales of SARS cases being hidden from World Health Organization doctors.

On Sunday, national television broadcast a live, two-hour news conference in which the government criticized its conduct on SARS and admitted, after weeks of denials, to a serious outbreak in Beijing. Not long after, the New China News Agency announced that the health minister and the mayor of Beijing had been fired. Monday brought another rare public self-criticism in the state-run press, from Beijing party secretary Liu Qi, a member of the secretive Politburo.

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