BEIJING - With the return of SARS to China, the ruling Communist Party is fine-tuning its system for parceling out information, safeguarding public health and muting public criticism of its actions.
State-run television has broadcast images of the one confirmed SARS patient, health officials have enacted quarantines and close monitoring of the patient's contacts, and the government is killing thousands of civet cats and countless rodents in an effort to prevent further spread of the disease.
The government also announced new travel restrictions this week: Railway passengers with high fevers and coughs will be stopped before boarding and sent to a hospital.
In almost every way, the government's initial response to SARS this year is as decisive and effective as last year's was not. But the key principle has remained the same: control.
When an aggressive southern China newspaper recently discovered the new SARS case, officials regarded it as an embarrassing pre-emption of their legal right to inform the people. The newspaper was raided by police this week, and the chief editor was briefly detained.
"The central government wants to show that it's in the driver's seat, not this newspaper," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. Yang was in China during the early phase of last year's SARS outbreak and had urged that officials take the new disease more seriously. The official response this year, he said, reflects a more mature, though still decidedly authoritarian, Chinese leadership.
"If one is willing to give the benefit of the doubt, then the system has worked," Yang said. "[But] there is some lingering doubt on whether in their urge to keep things under control they may not be as fully transparent as they should be."
This year in China, SARS is a public health story but also a measure of the resilient political system. Critics who had hoped last year that SARS would force reforms are instead finding a more fine-tuned system of controls.
Last April, several months after the first cases of SARS had emerged in southern Guangdong province, Chinese officials all but admitted that they had covered up the spread of the new virus while it infected thousands in Beijing, Hong Kong and around the globe, ultimately killing 774 people worldwide. The health minister and the Beijing mayor were fired, and a period of relative press freedom followed, with wide coverage.
But the turnaround came only after the government realized it had failed to hide the epidemic from the public. The modern medium of gossip in China - cellular phone instant messaging - had spread rumors about SARS so quickly that the government detained people who had sent many messages.
In the Chinese press, there was never a full accounting of the original SARS cover-up, and most stories on SARS still focus positively on the government's efforts to combat the virus.
Following the formula
Experts say the strategy for handling SARS follows the same formula the party uses to address other problems that might cause social unrest. The government can't cover up problems as easily as in the past, but it can control how the public learns about them. And by responding aggressively, or at least appearing to, the government can try to win public confidence.
This has been the government's approach to a series of problems. The government has waged a series of public campaigns on issues from poverty to official corruption, allowing newspapers limited freedom to report on such issues as long as the stories don't cast the central government in a negative light.
An example of this strategy was the coverage of a December gas explosion in southwest China that, according to official figures, killed 243 people and injured thousands. In another era, such disasters might not have been reported; this accident was covered, but with an obvious spin.
"The tone of all the major stories about the natural gas accident in Chongqing was to sing high praises about how the local government tried hard to help the victims," said Chen Lidan, a journalism professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing. "I suppose that there were instructions about the tone of the reporting from the government high above. But anyway, it's good that they even reported about it."
Last week's raid of Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou showed how the government can bluntly draw the line for the press. The newspaper had already irked Guangdong province officials with its coverage of the beating death of a migrant in police custody. In late December, the newspaper learned of the season's first suspected SARS case in China, forcing authorities to announce the case.
The SARS scoop posed not only an embarrassment for Guangdong officials, but it also could have been technically illegal. The government, not the media, is supposed to release news about infectious diseases, a policy purportedly intended to discourage false reports that might alarm the public.
"The rules were written in such a way that, legally, the newspaper was not on very good ground," the University of Chicago's Yang said. Still, Yang said, he was encouraged that the press, determined to sell newspapers, got the story out.
The test now is how the government and its controlled press respond if SARS returns in force. Already critics have questioned the delayed reporting of the first SARS case, that of a 32-year-old freelance television producer who has recovered. If there are missteps or problems in the future, will the press be allowed to expose them? "Information control is still intact and strict," Chen said. "The [media's] limited freedom is bestowed by the Communist Party. They can take it back anytime they want to."