The avian or “bird” flu has already spread across at least ten countries in Asia and caused almost two dozen deaths in Thailand and Vietnam. In China, the flu epidemic has spread to more than half of all provinces and territories, while Hong Kong has put itself on high alert against any contagion from the “inner” provinces. Of the 80 million fowl culled as of February 24, almost half that number occurred in China alone.
Moreover, a regional meeting called for by Thailand on January 28 highlighted the flu’s “regional dimension” and the urgent need for regional cooperation and a regional approach to eradicating it. China is directly and intensively involved in the fight being waged by Asian countries against the spread of the epidemic, a fact reflecting China’s status as Asia’s biggest and most populous country. But this common fight against the avian flu is especially significant for China because of the importance of its agricultural sector, the 900 million peasants who labor in it, and China’s ongoing socio-economic revolution, which is drastically transforming the country economically, socially, culturally and politically.
In fact, the flu is already driving home to the government and people of China four sets of implications or lessons, the effects of which are also transforming Asia–already struggling to recover from the 1997-1998 financial crisis and other crises related to terrorism and the earlier SARS epidemic–politically, economically, socially, and in terms of expanding regionalism. Even more than for the rest of Asia, the current effects of the avian flu are having a profound impact on China’s on-going “monumental revolution.” In fact, these effects will surely continue to “propel” the revolution even after the avian flu epidemic is extinguished.
IMPACT AND IMPLICATIONS
The avian flu epidemic is undoubtedly intensifying even further those changes that were already underway in China, and is thereby consolidating the even more radical changes that are to come.
Politically, the avian flu is creating a renewed awareness of the need for good governance in China, and especially of government transparency and accountability. In a replay of the political debacle that accompanied the initial outbreak of the SARS virus a year ago, the Chinese people are once again demanding a clean record of accountability in public health. China has “come clean” over the rapidity with which the flu has spread across half its territory since the first case was divulged. And political leaders like Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are taking tough actions while reaching out to destitute farmers from Hubei to Anhui Provinces. As they try to show that the present avian flu situation is under control, the Chinese government has been meticulously and regularly reporting the appearance of new outbreaks. At the same time, the government has ordered the culling of chickens by the millions. In fact, the central and provincial authorities and bureaucracy have been specifically warned not to hide any new cases from the general public. But unlike Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra or Indonesian President Megawati Soekarnoputri, the Chinese government faces no domestic political opposition or difficulties over the epidemic, particularly since there are no crucial electoral challenges looming.
Chinese leaders are nonetheless acutely aware of the importance of maintaining public confidence. Although they face no electoral challenge, political confidence in the government in on the line as it tries to battle the contagion effectively. Moreover, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are staking their own political authority and legitimacy on “openness” and on the “people’s mandate.” This means that the intensifying battle against the avian flu will have a special impact on their careers as well. They need to balance the demands of the people’s mandate with considerations of realpolitik within the Communist Party even as they seek to consolidate power against the Shanghai clique of Jiang Zemin and Vice President Zeng Qinghong. Furthermore, the entire leadership is acutely aware of the need to safeguard its own legitimacy and that of the Party while eradicating the flu at all costs; otherwise the Party could be plunged into a political crisis.
In economic terms, the appearance of the avian flu has again underscored the importance to the Chinese economy of domestic consumption, agricultural exports and tourism. Chinese domestic consumption has propped up all the Asian economies, including China’s own, since the 1997-98 Asian Crisis. Any drastic drop in consumer confidence could lead to a full-blown consumption and economic crisis (especially as a result of plunging prices for chicken and related exports), with severe repercussions for the Chinese economy. Consumer confidence is therefore of the utmost importance in the fast evolving Chinese economy, and any slowdown could carry serious political and social consequences. An economic slowdown could, for example, affect the stock market, although it should have no real impact on the Chinese RMB. An added danger for the Chinese economy, should the avian flu get out of hand, is its possible effect on the tourist and travel industries, especially as these sectors are beginning to rake in sizeable revenues for the state. However, the earlier SARS epidemic demonstrated that the real impact of the avian flu on the Chinese economy would likely be minimal, with no real adverse effects. In fact, the Chinese economy is officially estimated to have grown by 9.1 percent in 2003, despite SARS. The avian flu’s economic impact should thus be minimal and relatively insignificant too.
More urgent, however, is the need for China’s agriculture economy to experience a coordinated socio-economic uplift. Like SARS before it, the avian flu underscores the importance of implementing a more aggressive economic and social policy, one aimed at wiping out poverty and “balancing” society. Beneath China’s business boom there still can be found a “poor” economy and a marginalized society, both capable of serving not only as a breeding ground for diseases but also as a source of social unrest and political destabilization. China is therefore in urgent need of social policies designed and implemented to safeguard the country’s stability. This indeed constitutes the true political dimension and the reality check posed by the current avian flu epidemic in China!
Socially, one of the most important lessons unfolding in the present avian flu crisis in China is the importance and urgency of bridging the socio-economic gap between the richer urban communities and the poorer rural ones. The extent of the flu epidemic has again revealed the extent of poverty in rural Asia and the socio-economic cleavages in Asian societies today, especially in a vast country like China. The avian flu, like SARS, started from the poorer countryside, where hygiene standards are lower and where poverty and poor sanitation breed diseases. China has still some 900 million peasants living on the land, and the avian flu (like SARS last year) has again underscored the urgency to alleviate poverty in China as quickly as possible for the huge Chinese masses in its agricultural hinterland. Although peasants are no longer considered the “backbone” of the CCP and his legitimacy and power, as in “the Mao days”, the 900 million peasants still represent a crucial element of stability (or instability, if mishandled) for China.
Socially, and unlike in Thailand or Indonesia, the Chinese government decided that for the sake of equality and in the name of social justice all affected poultry within a certain radius of any discovered virus must be systematically culled–whereas those within a wider radius must be vaccinated. There is to be no special treatment for bigger farms or the bigger business cooperatives or conglomerates. The potential danger lies in wiping out smaller and poorer farmers in China’s rural areas, which could further aggravate the social distortions now occurring in China’s fast-evolving economic and agricultural sectors. Given the importance of these issues and their possible consequences, the government has also promised that compensation given to farmers who cull their livestock extensively will be fair and quickly delivered, especially during the important Chinese New Year period. Small devastated farmers will have to be “saved” from bankruptcy through government assistance and subsidies, so that they will not join the rush of rural peasants “fleeing” to Chinese cities to find work. Furthermore, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has warned that the flu could aggravate incidences of hunger and poverty if the small poultry owners are decimated in favor of the big business conglomerates.
Lastly, like the SARS epidemic, the avian flu has also highlighted the appearance of increasing interdependence and regionalism in Asia, in the countries’ economies and societies, and the fact that China is no exception to these trends. With the liberalization of trade and travel across the continent, Asian regionalism has become a reality, despite the fact that Asian governments still harbor political concerns over this deepening regionalism. China has clearly emerged as the premier power and centerpiece of this Asian regionalism. The growing “inter-connectivity” of Asian economies and societies should therefore continue. In fact, because of these epidemics, East Asian cooperation has clearly increased, thus quickening the pace and providing even stronger momentum for the creation of an “ASEAN+3” regional framework, one that would go beyond trade and investments alone. The avian flu crisis has underscored the necessity and urgency of deepening cooperation in areas ranging from health and environment to financial and social policy, of which China has been very mindful of recently. Only through effective regional cooperation can such scourges be eradicated, socio-economic gaps (within the region and individual countries) bridged, and stability guaranteed in this region, including for China.
Asian governments and public opinion in the region, and especially in China, are thus assimilating the lessons of the current avian flu epidemic in its political, economic, social and regional dimensions. These lessons should ultimately benefit the countries of Asia, including China, as they continue along the path of monumental political, economic, social and regional transformation and change.