Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 10

By Harvey Stockwin

The spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome–the SARS virus–throughout China is a phenomenon that had previously been denied by authorities and had gone unreported. But the penetration of the disease is now being admitted publicly, and efforts to combat it have begun. While the immediate epidemic in Beijing appears to be in decline, the fear remains that the spread of SARS within China will still be difficult–and maybe impossible–to control, let alone to eliminate. World Health Organization (WHO) officials admit that what happens in China will “make or break” the course of the epidemic. China’s neighbors, and particularly Hong Kong, worry that a failure to curtail the virus will inevitably result in a fresh round of cross-border infection, further intensifying the already grave economic impact of SARS on the region. At worst, a sustained epidemic could bring China’s opening-up to the outside world to a screeching halt.


Essentially, the SARS disaster means that China’s communist government has confronted the nation with one more deep-seated crisis of confidence, as it has done on several occasions since 1949. But this time the crisis does not stop at China’s borders.

First and foremost, the credibility of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and government has been badly damaged. The recent twenty-two-week coverup cannot be quickly forgotten (though Beijing is doing its best to make sure that everyone does forget). The new figures for China-wide SARS cases are being viewed with skepticism. Chinese and foreigners alike wonder if they are now being given an accurate picture of the spread and extent of the disease.

Once China started providing national figures, fourteen provinces and municipalities immediately began to report a few SARS cases, while Beijing’s previous claim of thirty-seven cases jumped thirty times in ten days. So it was natural to wonder whether the numbers from some other provinces would escalate in the same way.

But the basic fact remains that, since the initial November outbreak, the highly infectious SARS virus has had plenty of time to percolate unchecked throughout all of China (5,209 cases and 282 deaths so far, plus another 2,132 “suspected cases”). So it seems almost inevitable that more local epidemics like the one in Beijing will be revealed. That is unless China is very lucky, or the virus behaves unpredictably, or it fades away seasonally amid summer temperatures.

The ultimate extent of the epidemic, and of the crisis in confidence that is accompanying it, will be heavily influenced by the current near-breakdown of medical services in China, especially in the poorer, largely rural provinces. In Beijing at least, the PLA could respond to the SARS crisis by hurriedly building a 1,000-bed isolation hospital in a week. But Beijing is well-off compared to many other cities and provinces. There, medical services are either too expensive or rudimentary, or both.

In rural hospitals, SARS patients are often not isolated, a practice which will help to spread the disease. Moreover, horror tales are circulating of SARS patients being ejected from hospitals because they could not pay their bills. The government has ordered free treatment for SARS sufferers, especially in the rural areas, but the money factor means that many poor Chinese will stay at home with SARS rather than enter a hospital they know they cannot afford. And it remains extremely doubtful that those who do go to the hospital will all get the treatment they need. Even in Beijing, according to WHO officials, SARS sufferers are being misdiagnosed, while China’s medical authorities have not been as thorough as they should have been in collecting and analyzing essential data about the contagion. The SARS epidemic is forcefully confronting the CCP with the extent to which health services have been neglected in China as the country has pursued capitalist-style achievement.


The SARS crisis has also illustrated an even more basic breakdown–that of public order. There have been numerous cases of villages–even on the outskirts of Beijing–seeking to solve the SARS problem by refusing to permit the entry, or the passage, of any strangers, on the chance that they are suffering from the disease. Small riots have taken place and buildings have been trashed at several sites where authorities have sought to utilize the structures as SARS special treatment centers.

At a different level, some districts in Shanghai sought to impose a compulsory ten-day quarantine on all arrivals from places (in and out of China) that are in the grip of the SARS infection. They were overruled by the municipality, but Hainan and several other provinces have opted to try and do the same thing. Amid the intense parochial pressures and panic generated by the virus, a number of little “middle kingdoms” are seeking to separate themselves from the larger one.

There also exists the threat of a breakdown of control–and efforts by the party to reassert it. Shamed by the lies that have sustained the coverup, several doctors have insisted on their right to be whistle-blowers. Meanwhile, city authorities in Beijing–fearing a loss of control as the epidemic there expanded– took the extreme step of ordering a comprehensive ban on all entertainment. They applied the ban to theaters, cinemas, libraries, karaoke bars, Internet cafes, dance halls and video arcades. Marriage registrations were also suspended in order to ensure that no large wedding parties were held. And no sooner had WHO research scientists suggested that the SARS virus survives outside the human body, than Beijing reportedly sealed off all reservoirs lest the waters be polluted by SARS.

When Beijing belatedly got around to ordering students and migrant workers to stay in the city during the truncated May holiday to stop the spread of the infection, it was already too late. Roughly a million people, mainly migrant workers, had already left town–potentially to infect their home towns or villages.

The CCP has sought to maintain control over the capital and to fight SARS by reviving the infamous but long since neglected Street Committees of the Maoist Era. But in doing so, they have apparently forgotten that many of the old streets have now been demolished and that a sizeable portion of city dwellers today live in high rises where such committees were never established.

Inevitably, the credibility gap arising from the onset of the SARS epidemic has meant some loss of faith in the system among ordinary Chinese people. The CCP has sought to regain credibility with an old-style political and propaganda campaign, one that employs the controlled media to concentrate the attention of all citizens on the glorious battles being resolutely waged by the CCP against the evil SARS forces. The “heroes” of this battle are being endlessly extolled, and positive news continuously stressed, in the belief that by concentrating public attention on a future victory the masses will forget past failures and current inconveniences.


This campaign has been capped with a draconian remedy–those who “intentionally” infect others with SARS or any contagious disease may face “ten years to life imprisonment or the death penalty”. That any government should threaten to execute anyone for, say, evading quarantine or avoiding other emergency restrictions, is mind-boggling. The fact that China has done so is a pointed reminder that Beijing has tended to view this emergency as a security rather than merely a health crisis. True to their profoundly authoritarian ethos, CCP leaders often threaten dire punishments as a means of intimidation. The fact that they do so in the middle of this disaster only emphasizes that they do not appreciate the crisis of confidence in which they and the party are embroiled.

It all appears to be a high risk strategy. If the CCP’s moves end in a winding down of the epidemic and a limitation of the related economic damage, the party may survive this crisis of confidence, as it has outlasted earlier ones. But if the epidemic is sustained and the economic damage is consequently extensive, unrest remains a real prospect and there may be no easy end to the crisis of confidence.

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.