Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 8

On April 17, twenty-two weeks after the first outbreak of a previously unknown type of atypical pneumonia in Guangdong province, the highest political decision making body in China, the nine member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), finally took a public stand in favor of handling the spreading illness in a more open way.

According to statistics published to date, the part of China worst afflicted by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). There, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) gave front-page prominence to the fact that an order had finally been issued by the PSC for full disclosure. It came even as cases of SARS infection were rumored to be present at a dozen Beijing universities.

The PSC statement read out on Chinese TV was carefully quoted near the top of the SCMP report: “Leaders and cadres at all levels should have an accurate account of the epidemic situation, faithfully reporting to the public on a regular basis….There should be no delay in reporting, and no cover-ups.”

This was the news that many officials and medical personnel in Hong Kong had been waiting to hear ever since the infectious virus unexpectedly struck the territory in February. Until then, all news of the outbreak of “PRC,” or “Pneumonia from Red China” (as some Hongkongers quickly dubbed it) had been ruthlessly suppressed by the People’s Republic of China.

But though the PSC had spoken, the coverup continued. Right from the start, when Guangdong province in mid-February briefly disclosed news of the mid-November outbreak, the party line has been to stress that everything was under control. When the PSC meeting was reported in the People’s Daily English-language website (“Senior Chinese Leaders Meet To Discuss SARS Control”), the word “control” was mentioned no less than eight times. Only in the fifteenth and final paragraph was it noted that “the meeting explicitly warned against the covering up of SARS cases, and demanded the accurate, timely, and honest reporting of the situation.”

A day earlier, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) had finally plucked up the courage to criticize China for not reporting the SARS/PRC outbreak in Beijing more accurately. The W.H.O. also suggested that there were probably between one and two hundred SARS cases in the capital, many more than the thirty-seven then being admitted. The “China Daily” reported these statements under the completely contradictory headline, “WHO: No Cover-Up On Disease In Beijing.” The rest of the mainland print media simply ignored the W.H.O. press conference altogether.

Chinese officialdom’s sustained SARS coverup and its inability to look the epidemic threat firmly in the face, plus its systemic lack of openness and inability to cooperate with the outside world (including Hong Kong), have together cost Hong Kong a great deal. Hong Kong’s SARS cases and deaths nearly match those officially admitted for China as a whole. So far, Hong Kong hospitals have managed to handle the strain of providing intensive treatment for SARS patients, but the hope must be that the epidemic starts to decline soon before health care standards are affected.

The W.H.O. advisory against international travel to Hong Kong and Guangdong has hit the whole economy hard–not merely the tourist trade. Chek Lap Kok International Airport’s growth as a regional hub has been diminished as nearly every airline has cancelled flights in and out of Hong Kong. The region’s own Cathay Pacific Airways has been particularly badly hit.

Internal consumption is also way down, whether in restaurants, shops, cinemas or travel, as Hongkongers observe a de facto quarantine at home rather than indulge their normal habits. Unemployment, already high, seems certain to rise as the crisis forces many businesses to close. The economy was already in recession–with poor growth prospects even before the epidemic. Now growth prospects are good only for the government’s budget deficit. The deficit had forced tax increases prior to SARS, and now the government may have to lower those increases because of the disease. That could further raise the deficit. Last but not least, the over-reaction abroad to the SARS scare has handicapped Hong Kong’s normally nimble salesmen. Many local watch dealers, to cite one example, were banned from attending a major annual watch fair because the Swiss government, fearing that they might be carrying the virus, denied them the right to attend.

All these and many other unhappy consequences could have been avoided, or at least minimized, had SARS specimens from Guangdong quickly found their way into Hong Kong and other global laboratories as soon as people started dying from the previously unknown disease. With savage irony, China’s sins of omission regarding SARS were threatening Hong Kong’s basic security at the very moment when Beijing was pressing the HKSAR to pass Article 23 legislation–aimed at guarding Hong Kong against security threats.

That said, Hong Kong also has several good reasons to blame itself for the disaster that has befallen it. First, it has long been obvious that Hong Kong’s former China-watching skills have atrophied, and this episode emphasizes that decline. Given the enormous flow of people to and from Guangdong, and given that SARS-generated panic was observable there in December and January, it is amazing that neither the government nor the still free press concluded that this was something for Hong Kong to worry about. China’s current, determined efforts to suppress the free flow of information (on all matters, not just SARS) demands that Hong Kong undertake equally determined efforts to find out what is really going on in China. Such efforts would appear to be lacking.

Second, the Hong Kong authorities did not react as quickly as they should have when the looming health crisis became obvious. In February, one Guangdong hospital confirmed to its counterpart in Hong Kong that the new virus was both highly infectious and life threatening. The Hong Kong hospital, in turn, passed this information on to the authorities. But no one acted upon it. Had they done so, the first index patient might have infected fewer people. Well into March, some government officials in Hong Kong were still parroting the Chinese line that everything was under control and there was nothing to worry about. But this was at the very time when things were getting out of control and there were plenty of grounds for anxiety. In general, it can reasonably be said that Hong Kong acted as an open society should, while China behaved as a closed society does. But the HKSAR government could have acted with greater dispatch. Yet the people were free to say so–and on April 18 Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa admitted as much.

Third, Hong Kong’s overcrowded conditions inevitably contributed to the spread of the SARS infection. This was vividly demonstrated at the Amoy Gardens housing complex in Kowloon. There, several hundred residents of one housing block fell victim to the disease, raising the possibility that the virus might be airborne. A lengthy April 17 government report blamed faulty sewage pipes for spreading the virus, but initial CDC reaction has been skeptical. The government is hoping to avoid further such outbreaks with vigorous cleanup campaigns.

Fourth, Hong Kong’s weak sense of separate identity has, in the final analysis, contributed to this crisis. Tung’s vision of patriotism equates with never criticizing China. This is the reason China selected him as chief executive. The pro-China administration which he has appointed feels and acts the same way. But the weak sense of identity also helps explain why there is not a greater sense of public outrage over China’s crisis mismanagement.

Indeed, since 1997 the tendency when things go wrong has been to blame the Hong Kong government, rather than the Chinese leaders who created it. Reliable opinion polling [by the Baptist University’s Transition Project] consistently shows the people of Hong Kong giving the Beijing government higher approval ratings than those awarded to the Tung Administration. Whether the suffering in Hong Kong brought about by the SARS/PRC crisis will end this obvious anomaly remains to be seen.

Harvey Stockwin has been reporting and analyzing Asian developments since 1955. Currently he broadcasts a weekly fifteen-minute talk “Reflections From Asia” for Radio Television Hong Kong. He also contributes to the Japan Times and is the East Asia correspondent of The Times of India.