A responsible China

November 22, 2005

The single most important thing that happened in Sino-American relations last week was not President Bush's third visit to Beijing, an all-too-limited exercise in bilateral diplomacy. It was not China's announced intention to buy $4 billion worth of Boeing aircraft at some point in the near future. Nor was it Chinese President Hu Jintao's somewhat vague vow to take steps to reduce Beijing's $200 billion annual trade surplus with Washington.

Instead, the single most important bilateral development last week was China's quick, aggressive and unusually transparent response to outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu among its residents.

Last Wednesday, Beijing became the fifth country to identify human cases of bird flu - announcing it had confirmed three such cases around the country, two of which had already proved fatal. Moreover, the day before, the government announced it would attempt to vaccinate each of the country's billions of chickens and other poultry - as incredibly labor-intensive as that effort might sound.

Experts say the vaccination plan, if not done with proper infection-control measures, could inadvertently spread the diseases. But the swift and open reporting of the apparently spreading flu stands in stark contrast to Beijing's mishandling of a serious outbreak of sudden acute respiratory syndrome two years ago - missteps that began with a long delay in publicly acknowledging the epidemic that allowed it to eventually spread internationally. Whereas with SARS the World Health Organization was left in the dark far too long by China, WHO officials last week were singing Beijing's praises.

In this case, Americans should, too. The United States is not particularly well prepared to cope with an epidemic of H5N1 human infections any time in the near future. Chinese actions alone cannot prevent the flu from taking hold in this country. But, of course, anything that keeps the virus monitored and controlled among a fifth of the world's population is for the better - and very much in Americans' self-interest.

Over just this decade, China's economic integration with the world has been accelerating at a startling pace - even as Beijing too often fails to act responsibly on many fronts, from human rights to trade. But, if carried through, Beijing's transparency on avian flu is good for China and good for America.

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