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CHINA

SARS Lays Bare a Contradiction

May 04, 2003|Ross Terrill | Ross Terrill's most recent book is "The New Chinese Empire."

BOSTON — In its 54th year, the Chinese Communist regime displays both success and vulnerability, and the unsettling arrival of severe acute respiratory syndrome intersects with each.

Battered by the Tiananmen Square tragedy in 1989 and stunned by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Beijing sought to save Leninism with consumerism. This has worked.

But China still lacks elected leadership and a free press. The top Chinese figure is heir both to Leninism and Chinese dynastic rule. The citizens of the People's Republic of China are kept in the dark on sensitive topics. They are trusted with their money, but not with their minds.

Mao Tse-tung offered his people neither money nor information. In 1976, Mao's last year, an earthquake struck Tangshan, a city east of Beijing. Scientists around the globe knew it was huge. But Beijing hid the truth, refusing offers of assistance from the U.S. and the United Nations, though China needed help. Only years later did the government reveal that the quake had killed more than 240,000 people.

How many of the bodies dragged from the Tangshan rubble would have been kept alive if Beijing had put saving lives above saving face? The posture of silence and denial bespoke an imperial state. For the Chinese emperors, an earthquake, flood, famine, epidemic -- even a falling meteor -- was best left unmentioned because many Chinese believed they portended dynastic decline. Mao, himself a neo-emperor, linked cosmology and politics, despite his communist principles. That was one reason why Beijing drew a veil over the Tangshan earthquake.

A decade and a half after Mao's death, tipped off by a terrified Chinese gay man, I found my way to an unpublicized exhibition on AIDS in a gray-walled building near Tiananmen Square. There were photos and cartoons of dirty Western bathrooms, promiscuous U.S. soldiers, gays frolicking in San Francisco. The captions said Western bourgeois society had spawned a terrible new disease.

A few years later, AIDS became a major problem in China, not in Shanghai and Beijing where "decadent" Western tourists bedded "innocent" Chinese youths, but in the poppy-growing country of southwest China near the Myanmar border. Blood-selling in rural China made the drug-related AIDS problem worse. At first, Beijing told the world China had no AIDS cases at all.

Telling lies can threaten "stability and unity," just as reporting bad news can. Without doubt, however, transparency about SARS does risk panic among a jumpy populace.

Initially, after SARS burst out last November in southern Guangdong province, Beijing's response was similar to its handling of AIDS: Give little news, blame non-Chinese when possible, understate the cases.

For months, the Chinese party-state did not report the puzzling respiratory illness to the World Health Organization or its own medical chiefs across the country. Highly infectious, the virus jumped from south China to Hong Kong. Before the WHO wrenched details from Beijing, it had spread to a dozen countries (with deaths climbing). Today, SARS is in 27 countries. At least 417 people are dead, half of them in China, and an estimated 6,000 are infected.

In the medically crucial early months, Chinese journalists were told not to write about SARS. When, terribly late, a WHO team began work in China, it was not permitted to travel to Guangdong. The WHO was given false statistics about cases and fatalities in Beijing -- for a reason endemic to the Chinese authoritarian system. Many of the Beijing ill were in military hospitals, and the health ministry, which deals with the WHO, lacked authority to pry data from the military.

Two weeks ago, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, only months into their jobs, announced an end to lies about SARS. Last week in Bangkok, at an emergency Asian summit on SARS, Wen said, "A responsible government" should show a "spirit of candor." Hu and Wen must have realized that a continued cover-up could alienate the Chinese people and annoy China's neighbors. Yet, even partial openness is a threat to the economy. A million people have fled Beijing since Hu and Wen changed tack. Schools, shops and places of entertainment in the city are closed or half empty.

Meanwhile, China's top leaders are rattled by SARS. An earthquake hits only one area. SARS is already in 24 Chinese provinces. AIDS comes only through risky acts (careless sex, blood transfer, drug injection). SARS could lurk in any train rushing through China or any airplane over Asia.

Adding to Beijing's disorientation is the transition from Jiang Zemin as supreme leader to Hu as his successor. Some feel SARS could set one man (or his followers) against the other (or his followers). No evidence of that yet exists. A health crisis, unless catastrophic, is more likely to induce political unity at the top than political squabbling. Wen said almost plaintively: "We have to help each other fight this disease, because we are all in the same boat."

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