SARS highlights discord in China

Beijing exodus latest sign of regime's looser control amid rising social reforms

April 28, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Ignoring government pleas to stay, Wei Jisheng fled Beijing on a sold-out train last week, jamming himself in among hundreds of other migrant workers packed like so many standing sardines for a 19-hour trip to remote northeast China.

In this capital city of 14 million, an authoritarian government with decades of experience at controlling its people might seem well-positioned to attack the spread of an infectious disease such as SARS. But despite announcements of a series of tough measures, people rushed out of Beijing unimpeded for days last week, crowding onto buses, trains and airplanes in an exodus exceeding 100,000 a day - perhaps approaching twice that.

"In a few days, when they seal off the city, even if you want to leave you won't be able to," said Wei, who left his job digging ditches for a telecommunications company to buy a $12 ticket home. "People are talking about this."

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome has seized on the dissonance between China's authoritarian political system and its increasing social and economic freedom. People aren't entirely free, but they can travel more freely than ever before under Communist rule. The authorities dictate orders, but they're not always followed. The government has broad police powers but has difficulty enforcing them.

So people such as Wei pay less attention to the government and leave town without health checks, and the government seems unable to do much about it.

Even if the authorities could pull it off, there appears to be little need to seal off Beijing because so many who wanted to leave have done so - potentially spreading SARS farther into poor rural areas - and the rest are staying home.

After closing schools, quarantining thousands and cordoning off two hospitals late last week, Beijing has instituted increasingly strict policies - including the closure of movie theaters, Internet cafes, karaoke bars and libraries, announced this weekend - and a citywide cleaning campaign to begin this week. More quarantines were announced yesterday, including residences and dormitories at three universities. Belatedly, the government tightened roadblocks around Beijing and ordered employers and universities to try to keep rural laborers and college students in the city.

But for many, all that is almost superfluous: The streets are devoid of the traffic jams and jostling crowds of pedestrians and bicyclists that once characterized life in this city. Like the mystery virus itself, Beijing is a city that has mutated faster than authorities have been able to keep up.

In one week, the city - whose population may be down to 13 million after the exodus - has looked on as the government has suddenly acknowledged a debacle in the making. The number of officially reported SARS cases in Beijing leaped from 37, with four deaths, to 1,114 confirmed cases and 1,191 suspected cases, with 58 deaths. Nationwide, the number of confirmed cases has nearly tripled during that time to 2,914, and there are nearly 2,000 suspected cases.

It started April 20 with shockingly candid admissions from top health officials, who said on national television that the government had made serious mistakes in handling SARS and that Beijing had a "serious" outbreak, with nearly 350 cases and hundreds more to come.

With the confession came the firings of the health minister and the Beijing mayor, though some Chinese observers believe they were sacrificed for a cover-up approved at the highest echelon of power.

The first known SARS cases emerged in southern China's Guangdong province in November, and officials in Guangdong and perhaps Beijing knew by early January that a dangerous, mysterious infection was spreading in the province. But top officials ordered the news media not to report on SARS, and only this month did they come out publicly to discuss the disease - and even then to say there was nothing to worry about, that the disease was under control.

Now the state media have been given more leeway to report on SARS. But despite an apparent new attitude of openness, the media do not have free rein to report fully on setbacks in fighting the virus and on the real number of cases, according to sources here who say cases continue to be underreported nationwide and in Beijing.

After years of absorbing propaganda instead of information from the authorities, the result is perhaps inevitable. The people's fears, myths and conjectures have filled the gaps between the words of the Communist Party and reality.

Because the government hasn't disclosed where the SARS hot spots in Beijing are, rumors of the disease's spread are chasing fear into every community. When the government denied tales that the city would be closed off or that martial law would be imposed, some remained skeptical, well aware, perhaps, that the Communist Party famously imposed martial law here before, during the democracy protests of 1989. Checkpoints set up around the city last week only contributed to the panic.

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