Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 8

An epidemic, spread by official deception and indifference, is afflicting the Chinese people. What does this disease mean for the People’s Republic of China?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome, “SARS” for short, is, according to the World Health Organization, “the first severe new disease of the 21st century with global epidemic potential.” The first case of this new disease is thought to have originated in China’s Guangdong Province last November. Researchers believe that a businessman in Foshan, near the provincial capital of Guangzhou, contracted SARS and started a chain of infection that, at last count, has now spread to twenty-eight countries. The businessman survived, but others have not. About 220 have died, according to W.H.O. statistics.

John Pomfret of The Washington Post reports of the disease that “no concerted action was taken to control its spread until late January.” Even then, officials failed to disclose that SARS was highly contagious. Guangdong authorities did not alert neighboring Hong Kong or even their counterparts in other Chinese provinces. Officials suppressed news of the outbreak in state media until February 9. The Propaganda Ministry halted reporting on February 25, in order to control unfavorable news during the runup to the National People’s Congress meeting, which began during the first week of March in Beijing.

In the meantime, there was panic in Guangdong as local residents, knowing of the outbreak but deprived of news, resorted to local remedies to protect themselves. Some thought that the disease was a strain of bird flu that had earlier plagued the area. Others called it weaponized anthrax that had leaked from a Chinese military lab. Everyone seemed to have a theory.

Only early this month did the central government permit W.H.O. representatives into Guangdong. Up until that time they were barred from traveling outside Beijing. Even in the capital they were kept in the dark. Then a courageous Chinese military surgeon, Jiang Yanyong, publicly accused health officials of covering up the truth. Dr. Jiang revealed that SARS patients were hidden in military hospitals. At that point, the W.H.O.–and the rest of us–began to grasp the extent of infection in the Chinese capital.

By then, however, almost everyone suspected that China’s leaders were lying. One official after another told the public that the disease was “effectively controlled,” but new cases were being constantly reported in ever more locations around the country. Foreign nations, and even the W.H.O. itself, posted advisories discouraging travel to the Mainland.

Premier Wen Jiabao, sounding exactly the wrong note at a time when a nationwide epidemic was ravaging his country, earlier this month said: “The Chinese government and people warmly welcome friends worldwide to come to our country for tourism, visits or to engage in commercial activities.” That was just a few days before he declared that “the overall situation remains grave.”

Grave? What is grave is the state of Beijing’s new leadership. SARS has many victims, but the most prominent may be the Chinese Communist Party. Every change of leadership in the People’s Republic understandably brings forth a new wave of optimism, and that was true when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were recently elevated to their current posts. President Hu and Premier Wen promised to do more for China’s people, and observers around the world believed that there would be a new approach in Beijing.

The government’s initial handling of the SARS epidemic was, in the words of Standard & Poor’s, “reprehensible.” Over the past few days, however, the central government seems finally to have understood the magnitude of the crisis and has begun to act. On April 20, senior cadres were sacked and more deaths were announced. In addition, the May 1 holiday was shortened from one week to one day in order to prevent any spreading of the disease that might result from travel during the longer period.

The government also admitted that the number of infections in the Chinese capital increased from thirty-seven to 346, but denied that any cases were covered up. “We have not discovered any locality or place that has intentionally hidden these statistics,” said Executive Vice Minister of Health Gao Qiang.

SARS has exposed a simple truth: China may look more modern today, but government officials are still stuck in the old way of thinking. The new mobilization campaign, which is reminiscent of past mass efforts, reflects an awareness only of the extent of infection. It has not, unfortunately, resulted in a new openness in official media or the government.

To be sure, these new steps are a sign of progress. In reality, however, little of substance has changed in Beijing. Susan Lawrence, writing before the April 20 announcements in the most recent issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, points out that much of the change we have seen over the past two weeks is, essentially, the result of concern for China’s economic growth–not its people. “In this fiasco,” she writes, “the economy and the well-being of foreigners seem more important than public health.”

And amid this fiasco, the Party’s senior leadership has acted only when the Chinese people left them no choice. The good Dr. Jiang in Beijing is not the only person to have taken a stand. Before the central government implemented its new measures, Zhong Nanshan, director of the Guangzhou Respiratory Disease Research Institute, said in a news conference in Beijing that the government’s views on SARS were without merit.

Other medical professionals, fed up with their government’s indifference, have also challenged the official line. Mainland doctors were muzzled by the system, but they used the Internet to disclose to the outside world the existence of unreported cases. “We get lots of e-mails from people in China,” says Pat Drury of the W.H.O., referring to this recent phenomenon. Time magazine reports that it has heard from medical workers seeking to make known that SARS patients had been bused around Beijing to avoid detection by W.H.O. personnel inspecting military hospitals in the capital. By April 20, even senior Communist Party leaders could see that their position had become untenable.

Defiance was not limited to the professional classes. Average people, many speaking up for the first time, also began to tell the world what they thought. “If we had known about this disease, we would have stayed away from the hospital,” said Chen Lili. She and her brother contracted SARS, undoubtedly from their parents. First her father, a veteran of the civil war against the Kuomintang, caught the disease and died in hospital. Her mother also became a SARS victim after tending to her husband at his hospital bedside. “Why didn’t the government say anything?”, she asked. “I blame them for my parents’ death.”

And some people took matters into their own hands. Late last week, Beijing University ordered students to stay in the Chinese capital during the upcoming May 1 holiday. That is despite the fact that the nation’s premier educational institution had suspended most classes and postponed exams because of SARS cases on campus. In an apparent attempt to prevent a total closure of the school, students were told that they would “suffer the consequences of their actions” and not be allowed to return if they left Beijing during the week long break. Yet Peng Zhongzheng, a junior in economics, said that his classmates were defying the order. “They said they have the control over their own legs.”

As time passes, more of China’s people are likely to speak and do as they please. So the risk for the Party is not just economic–it has a political dimension as well. The question that needs to be posed is a simple one: Will the nation’s political establishment change in time?

Despite all that has happened, Beijing today is still trying to manage appearances to serve its own ends. On April 16, for example, W.H.O. representatives, speaking from the Chinese capital, vindicated Dr. Jiang Yanyong when they said that China was still underreporting the number of SARS cases and that this secrecy hampered their efforts to combat the disease. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, the Chinese government denied the charge, and on April 20 it reaffirmed that no cases were hidden.

“Facts have spoken for themselves,” said the official China Daily newspaper this month. “In tackling the SARS, the Chinese government has shown the highest degree of responsibility and cooperation with the international community.” But an international disease control expert, referring to the government’s reaction to the epidemic, says that: “Lies perpetuate lies.” The expert insisted on anonymity to protect his relationship with Mainland officials. This reticence is understandable, but on this subject the Chinese people seem to be more bold.

As analysts discuss SARS’s impact on foreign investment or economic growth, ordinary Chinese citizens are demonstrating the epidemic’s effect on the nation itself. What is so depressing about this disease is that, after a quarter century of reform and opening up, the essential nature of the regime has changed so little. But what is so uplifting is that, after a decade in which the government withdrew from everyday life, the Chinese people are beginning to find their voice.

“I feel anxious for the masses,” said Hu Jintao in mid-April. And given all that has happened, so should we. But then again, maybe we don’t have to–China’s common folk are beginning to speak–and act–for themselves.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.