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SARS Crisis Forces China to Open Up

The epidemic has compelled authorities to alter their usual secrecy. But some observers are dubious about the long-term effect.

May 09, 2003|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — A deadly epidemic runs largely unchecked. Inept officials get the boot. The government admits its own failure and promises to change its ways. This chain of events in China marks a leap forward for this nation's ossified political system.

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in China and the government's initial poor handling of the crisis has inspired comparisons to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which contributed to the slow unraveling of the Soviet Union, and to the discontent among Chinese that led to the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

However, until the regime's ongoing battle with the disease plays out, the epidemic's ultimate political effect is difficult to predict.

The disease is still spreading across the world's most populous country, where the outbreak originated in November. So far, SARS has killed 506 people and sickened 7,053 around the world. Most of the victims have been in China, where deaths and infections continue -- even as the disease appears to be ebbing in other affected countries.

China fired two top officials last month and acknowledged that the Health Ministry had underreported the number of SARS cases. Political accountability is so rare in this country that this suggestion of change has given many people hope that more has to be on the way.

If the outbreak continues to spread in the vast and impoverished Chinese countryside, the political fallout could be even greater -- and feed suspicions that the system more than the sickness is to blame.

"This is not only a natural disaster, it is a man-made disaster," said Zhong Dajun, an independent research analyst in Beijing. "Our political system is completely unable to deal with a crisis like this. Even if we win this war, it calls for some serious soul-searching so we can truly learn from the disaster and prevent the next one."

Already, SARS has become a case study in how much China has changed -- and how much it remains the same. The fact that the virus jumped so quickly from southern China to the rest of the country and beyond reflects the Chinese people's newfound mobility and integration with the world. Yet the initial lack of corresponding openness in the political system has helped the disease thrive in a country where crisis management still often means hiding the truth and muffling the media.

Even the firings April 20 of the nation's health minister and Beijing's mayor have been dismissed by some as a knee-jerk reaction indicative of rule by humans rather than the rule of law.

"I don't believe this is part of some huge revolution that's going to throw China open," said Orville Schell, a longtime China watcher from UC Berkeley. "It's a time-honored tradition in China when there's a problem, somebody has to take the fall. They may get rid of a few people, but the same old dysfunctional system continues."

Underlying China's reaction to the SARS epidemic has been two decades of turbocharged economic growth and anemic political reforms. The government in effect made a pact with the Chinese people: They could enjoy the freedom to pursue prosperity but had to refrain from making political demands.

The deal rested on the assumption that the regime could keep the economy humming along. Some observers suspect that the government faced up to the SARS outbreak only because it feared that investors would be scared away.

"The Chinese government wouldn't care how many people died. Think how many people died during the Cultural Revolution and the famines," said Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a China expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But when the outside world became aware of the epidemic's extent, she added, Chinese officials "began to think they could lose more by continuing to hide it and it's best to play the responsible big power."

That in itself is a sign of progress because the old China would have preferred to ignore international opinion. But with a disease that knows no borders, the regime can't afford to remain isolated.

In fact, as the fight against SARS kicked into high gear in recent weeks, some kind of political change appeared inevitable.

Newly appointed Health Minister Wu Yi and acting Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan are considered capable politicians who have been pushed to the front of the battle against SARS, possibly setting the standard for a new kind of politician.

"This epidemic is a huge force for change," said Zhong, the analyst. "It's not just political theater. It's a sign they mean business. They have no choice now but to do the right thing."

In a possible sign of more media openness, the government on May 2 publicized a submarine accident in the Yellow Sea that killed 70 people. China rarely reports military disasters, and this one is considered one of the worst in communist history.

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