Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 8

In addition to hurting Beijing’s global image and its foreign-exchange earnings, China’s raging pneumonia epidemic could also deal a big blow to the administration of Hu Jintao, and particularly to the credibility of the new president’s reform efforts.

On the surface, the 60-year-old Fourth Generation leader does not need to take personal responsibility for the coverup of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). He became CCP General Secretary only at last November’s 16th Party Congress, and state president at the National People’s Congress (NPC) last March.

As diplomats and foreign health experts familiar with the SARS disaster have indicated, bureaucrats in both Beijing and Guangdong Province–where the first cases broke out last November–had followed the time honored practice of suppressing “negative news” in the runup to such major functions as party congresses and NPCs.

The authorities began paying attention to the problem only in late March. Yet this was apparently due not so much to the rising number of casualties and increased human suffering as to the fact that foreign businessmen and conference operators had begun canceling trips to and, events in, coastal China. “Beijing has decided that SARS should be handled mainly from the point of view of safeguarding China’s international prestige and credibility,” said a Guangdong official familiar with health policies. As Premier Wen Jiabao pointed out in a recent cabinet meeting on the epidemic, the country’s “national interest and international image” were at stake.

Indeed, it was only after the foreign trade and investment angle had become clear, in late March, that the CCP leadership decided to respond to pressure exerted on Beijing by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.). However, it was not until April 2, when the W.H.O. issued a world wide advisory against traveling to China and Hong Kong, that Beijing allowed the world body’s medical experts to conduct a fact finding mission to Guangdong.

If a scapegoat needs to be found, the cadre who fits the bill best may be Li Changchun, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member in charge of propaganda. Li has overseen the state media–including much of the handling of SARS-related publicity–since last November. Moreover, prior to his promotion at the 16th Party Congress, Li was the party secretary, meaning the top official, of Guangdong for some four years. As such, Li could be held accountable for the deplorable public health conditions that prevail in the southern province.

On April 20, in an effort to pacify domestic and international criticism of China’s handling of the SARS crisis, party authorities sacked Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong. While Zhang in particular had participated personally in obfuscating facts, it is doubtful whether firing two ministerial-level cadres will be sufficient to convince world opinion of Beijing’s commitment to telling the truth about the epidemic.

That Hu cannot escape blame, however, is clear from the fact that he had become party general secretary–the most senior PSC member–in mid-November. It is common knowledge that decisions on most major domestic or foreign policies are thrashed out by this supreme council. Moreover, almost immediately upon becoming party chief, Hu had started a close-to-the-masses campaign aimed at highlighting the importance of listening to the people and improving their welfare.

For example, while addressing an ideological study session for party cadres last February, Hu enunciated this memorable doctrine: “Power must be used for the sake of the people; [cadres’] sentiments must be tied to those of the people; and material benefits must be sought in the interest of the people.” Clearly, the leadership’s black-box operations regarding SARS can hardly be said to benefit the masses.

Moreover, since last December Hu has spearheaded a drive to liberalize media censorship. In numerous internal meetings, the party chief has vowed to respect the people’s zhiqing quan (“right to know”). The party boss has repeatedly indicated that news reporting “must be close to the masses, close to life and close to the truth.” How, then, can Hu have tolerated the party and government’s near-pathological pattern of lying about the epidemic?

That Hu has been on the defensive over SARS can be seen from the fact that the party supremo and state president has kept public appearances or comments on the subject to a minimum. Instead, he has let State Council ministers–primarily Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-Premier Wu Yi–do the talking. It was not until April 14, during a tour of medical facilities in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, that Hu made a public statement about SARS. The president pointed out that “thanks to a series of measures and hard work, Guangdong has brought the disease under effective control.” This, however, seemed an embellishment of the truth, given the steady number of new cases in the province.

A Chinese source said it was significant that, in late March, the leadership had settled upon Wu as the point woman for the SARS crisis. “Wu’s portfolio is foreign policy and trade–not health,” the source said. “But she was picked because of her credibility with Chinese and foreigners alike.” Wu, sometimes known as the “iron lady,” secured a whopping 98.84 percent of the vote when she was confirmed as vice-premier at last March’s NPC. As state councilor in the Zhu Rongji cabinet, she won the admiration of many cadres for helping the former premier crack the multi-billion yuan smuggling and corruption scandal that centered on the southeast seaport of Xiamen.

Outside China, Wu is respected as a tough trade negotiator and the mastermind behind the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization. According to Beijing and Guangzhou sources, Wu traveled to Guangzhou in late March, where she gave local officials a sound scolding for mishandling SARS-related medical treatment and publicity.

To some extent, Wu’s no nonsense, talk tough approach has made a difference. During a cabinet meeting on April 13, Wen asked officials to “insist on stating the facts” when informing the international community about the most recent developments in the epidemic crisis. Then, a few days later, both Hu and Wen ordered that cadres who lie about SARS-related figures be penalized. Meanwhile, a number of Beijing and regional officials have admitted that it was inaccurate to say the SARS situation was “under control” because doctors had so little knowledge about the virus. Their number included Guangdong’s top epidemics expert, Zhong Nansan.

Of greatest significance, on April 20 health authorities dramatically revised upward the number of SARS cases nationwide from 1,512 to 1,807. Beijing accounted for almost all this increase. The figure for the capital soared overnight from thirty-seven to 339. Moreover, there were said to be 402 “suspected cases.” Beijing officials said they were finally taking into account SARS patients undergoing treatment in the city’s military hospitals. However, officials have still not been forthcoming with statistics from most of the nation’s nearly 200 army hospitals.

Despite these latest gestures of compliance with the demands of the W.H.O. and world opinion, doubts linger as to whether Chinese cadres will henceforward comply with Hu and Wen’s requirement about “accurate, timely and honest reporting.” Only days before that admonition, for example, the State Council issued orders that all officials and medical personnel should “speak with one voice” about SARS–that is, they should follow the central line when making public statements about the epidemic. And as of April 20, officials had still not owned up to their willful hiding of facts. For example, they claimed that discrepancies in the Beijing figures were due only to “poor coordination” among government departments and hospitals. Factual and statistical obfuscation in numerous provinces and cities, particularly those in central and western provinces, have yet to be investigated or disclosed to the public.

The biggest casualty of the SARS coverup, however, could be the new administration’s reform effort. The apparent refusal by the Hu-Wen team to come clean on the SARS scandal–or to penalize the culprits–has aroused suspicion that, despite its apparent commitment to reform, the Fourth Generation leadership is but following the time-honored practice of putting so-called “stability” above the masses’ welfare. Moreover, Hu must now guard against a backlash from the party’s conservative wing. The conservatives are claiming that “anti-China forces” are using the SARS issue to blacken coastal China’s “world factory” image–and that the Hu leadership must resist pressure coming from the China bashers.

The epidemic will also have negative consequences for China’s relations with Hong Kong and Taiwan. The spread of the virus from Guangdong to Hong Kong has shown that, “one country two systems” notwithstanding, de facto integration between Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta region is becoming a reality. Moreover, there are no mechanisms in place to prevent mishaps in Guangdong–in this case the spread of the deadly virus and cover-up by the local government–from hitting Hong Kong hard.

The Hong Kong public is also angry with the administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Perhaps reflecting a mainland-Chinese mentality of suppressing bad news, the Tung team at first refused to declare a city wide emergency. While the initial SARS cases erupted in Hong Kong on March 8, it was not until April 1 that the government began implementing quarantine measures to contain the epidemic.

In a hastily arranged meeting with Tung in the Guangdong city of Shenzhen in mid-April, President Hu pointed out that “the central government will give full support to Hong Kong and help the city win victory in the fight against SARS.” Analysts said, however, that such efforts to shore up confidence could backfire as quite a large cross-section of Hong Kong opinion has blamed Beijing for giving a second term of office to the inept Tung.

Beijing’s bungled handling of the SARS outbreak may also hurt its reunification efforts. The administration of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian cited health concerns in halting the so-called “minor three Links”–direct shipping and commercial ties between the outlying island of Quemoy with Fujian Province. Taipei has also seized upon the need for global cooperation in fighting SARS to lobby for its long-standing goal of gaining observer status at the W.H.O.

The Chinese leadership, meanwhile, has tried to regain the initiative on the cross-Strait front by offering to share SARS-related information with Taiwan’s health authorities and to conduct joint medical seminars in Beijing later this month. However, given that the pneumonia outbreak on the self-ruled island is now under effective control, there seems little incentive for Taipei to reciprocate Beijing’s overtures. Taipei politicians are saying that, if the SARS crisis is not defused by the summer, the number of Taiwanese businessmen and technicians going to the coastal cities will decline by large numbers.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best-known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.