Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 9

By Willy Lam

In addition to shaving perhaps 0.5 percent from China’s GDP growth this year, the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) will have a lasting socio-political impact on the country. The authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been shaken to the core even as its ability to handle emergencies and protect people’s lives has been called into question.

It is too early to say whether, in the wake of the sacking of two ministerial-level officials for SARS-related bungling, the new leadership under President Hu Jintao will go one step further by reforming the cadre and even the political system. What is clear is that chinks in the CCP armor that have been exposed by the pandemic will hasten the pace of the country’s transformation. Not only intellectuals but ordinary people–including members of the disgruntled, alienated silent majority–may be playing more pro-active roles in ushering in a new era. The following are ten important areas of public life where SARS has left its mark–and where major changes may take place in the near to medium term.

1. CCP “omnipotence” debunked. Premier Wen Jiabao first won national acclaim for having “tamed” the great floods of 1998. However, the party and government leadership has made repeated mistakes and encountered unexpected difficulties in tackling the microscopic but tricky coronavirus.

After the party leadership was forced by the World Health Organization (WHO)–and foreign governments–to end the cover-ups, it has had difficulty getting facts and figures from army hospitals and from a number of provincial and municipal administrations. Health authorities have met with stiff resistance from cadres and residents in districts where SARS-related medical and quarantine facilities are to be built. Nor were the central authorities able to do much to prevent many thousands of migrant laborers, who were potential carriers of the virus, from leaving the capital and spreading the epidemic further inland. This exposure of the party’s weaknesses could, at the very least, embolden “rightist” intellectuals to demand some degree of power-sharing between the party and other interest blocs in the country.

2. Provide much-needed impetus for a cadre responsibility system. The firing of Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong for hiding facts and for gross incompetence has engendered more calls for tighter scrutiny over cadres and civil servants. Outspoken social scientists such as Tsinghua University’s Hu Angang have called for the introduction of Western style checks and balances in the system to ensure the probity of officials. Professor Hu has asked the National People’s Congress (NPC) to set up a special committee to look into the mishandling of the SARS disaster.

President Hu and allies such as Premier Wen Jiabao are under pressure to use the SARS crisis as a proverbial tupokou (“breakthrough point”) to overhaul the inefficient and corrupt cadre establishment. There is even speculation that the Hu-Wen team may soon reopen investigations into dozens of major corruption cases, including those linked to members of the Jiang Zemin or Shanghai Faction.

3. Highlight zhiqing quan vs. propaganda as usual. Premier Wen has reiterated after the epidemic’s outbreak that government units as well as state media should respect the people’s zhiqing quan (“right to know”). Even the official Public Security Newspaper has pointed out in a commentary that the masses’ zhiqing quan was “a serious legal matter.”

However, old habits die hard. A circular issued in late April by the CCP Publicity Department urged propaganda cadres to “take a firm grip on the correct direction of news reports and commentaries–and to nurture a beneficial atmosphere for the prevention of SARS.” In the wake of the SARS coverup, CCP authorities will have to try extra hard to convince the Chinese people and foreign observers that the authorities are willing to put truth ahead of the party’s self-interest.

4. Beijing’s monopoly on news and information is being broken. Beijing’s penchant for embellishing the facts notwithstanding, the SARS crisis has confirmed that the authorities have lost their monopoly on the flow of information. Chinese citizens, or at least the residents of large cities, have alternate news channels for getting the latest information about the epidemic–and for transmitting information that is often deemed embarrassing to the administration.

Mobile-phone text messages have emerged as one potent weapon for what pundits are calling “Chinese-style people’s information warfare.” Even before the SARS outbreak, experts estimated that 150 billion such messages would be sent out this year. In the last week of April, authorities in Guangdong detained fifteen people for using their mobile phones to spread “rumors” that were considered destabilizing, libelous or anti-government. However, the CCP leadership must live with the fact that it has irrevocably lost its monopoly on information.

5. Bending to the forces of globalization. During the Kosovo crisis of 1999, Beijing vigorously protested against the principle espoused by Washington and London that “humanitarianism overrides national sovereignty.” The CCP has to this day upheld the traditional view of the inviolability of sovereignty–that each nation state possesses clear cut boundaries that brook no violation.

Beijing reluctantly gave up chunks of its economic and financial sovereignty upon accession to the Word Trade Organization in late 2001. In the past month, it has buckled under pressure from the WHO–and foreign countries–to render parts of its political and public health systems more transparent and compatible with world norms. It is likely that the CCP leadership will have to yield some more of its powers and control mechanisms in the near future.

6. Developing a more balanced appreciation of “soft” vs. “hard” power. In a survey published earlier this year about China’s “comprehensive strength,” the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) ranked the country’s economy and military power as third and fourth, respectively, among thirteen leading nations of the world. However, regarding “the degree of social development” and “the government’s regulatory ability,” China came in at eleventh and thirteenth, respectively.

What the CAS academics were quantifying was mostly “hard” power. Yet in terms of “soft” power–what some analysts call moral authority or cultural impact–the nation’s standing is hardly commensurate with its economic or military muscle. The SARS crisis has found both the Chinese government and ordinary citizens wanting in areas that include the ability to face up to and tell the truth, and, paradoxically, such so-called socialist values as selfless devotion to the public good. To gain international respect, China must try harder to nurture values that will enable it to reclaim the moral and cultural high ground.

7. Addressing a yawning gap between “hardware” and “software.” Since Deng Xiaoping kicked off the reform era in the late 1970s, Beijing has concentrated its funds and energy on building infrastructure and hardware ranging from skyscrapers to superhighways. However, such software as health and education have been neglected.

The SARS imbroglio has exposed atrocious medical, welfare and educational conditions in different parts of the country. Paradoxically, the relatively modern system of railroads and highways has only made it easier for the SARS-causing coronavirus to spread quickly from city centers to areas where many people still battle diseases with crude and even superstitious remedies.

8. Easing the enduring scourge of regionalism. SARS’ inexorable rampage testifies to the fact that, despite fairly successful efforts at re-centralization undertaken by former president Jiang and former premier Zhu Rongji, regionalism still runs deep. No province or large city wants to provide the world with an accurate picture of its SARS-related problems for fear of driving away investors and tourists. Individual areas have, without Beijing’s authorization, erected barriers on highways and railroads to stop travelers from reaching cities hit by SARS.

However, Beijing–and Jiang’s Shanghai Faction in particular–must shoulder much of the blame in view of their policy of developing the “gold coast” at the expense of the vast hinterland. The still under-reported AIDS epidemic has shown that mandarins in the capital are hardly interested in bailing out badly affected areas in the hinterland. And Beijing still has to demonstrate a willingness to help Western provinces build the kind of educational and health-care structure that will be needed to tackle SARS over the long haul.

9. The PLA’s special status is being challenged. One of the villains of the SARS-related coverup has been the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Many of the nearly 200 military hospitals have refused to cooperate with civilian authorities–and also with the WHO–in divulging statistics about SARS patients. And it is significant that Jiang, the publicity loving former president who still runs the PLA, waited until late April–five months after the first cases had erupted–before he made a public comment on the deadly disease.

The SARS crisis could galvanize calls for transforming the PLA into a “normal” state organ that is subject to the scrutiny of the NPC. The epidemic has shown once again that the army’s status as “state within a state” must be ended if Beijing is to meet the requirements of globalization.

10. The Taiwan angle. Cadres in Beijing’s Taiwan policymaking establishment have privately scolded the president of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, for using SARS as an excuse to cut travel and other links across the Taiwan Strait.

However, there is no denying that the mishandling of the epidemic in both China and Hong Kong has ignited in Taiwan a new wave of fear about the mainland–and doubts about the viability of the “one country, two systems” formula. While Taiwan businessmen and tourists will return to Chinese cities once the epidemic has begun to peter out, the psychological barrier erected by the coronavirus will stay. The SARS crisis has once again illustrated the fact that while most Taiwanese do want to make money on the mainland, very few are hardy enough to face the accompanying political–and medical–risks.

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.