- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

BEIJING China's Communist Party stripped the health minister and the capital's mayor of power yesterday as the nation reels from a jump in deaths from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and a tenfold increase in infections in Beijing alone.
It also canceled a weeklong holiday for tens of millions of people to keep them from traveling and curb the spread of the disease.
Just hours after announcing 12 new deaths nationwide, the official Xinhua news agency said Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong were removed from their Communist Party posts but kept their government titles. The reported number of infections in Beijing increased from 37 to 346 yesterday.
Today, state media reported two more deaths from SARS.
The party is the true power in China, and Mr. Zhang's and Mr. Meng's party posts were far more important than their government offices. Their loss left the two men greatly diminished as political figures and todayMr. Meng, a protege of President Hu Jintao, was fired as Beijing mayor.
"Mr. Meng has been sacked, and the new mayor begins work today," an official at the Secretariat of the Beijing Party Committee told Agence France-Presse.
The dismissals came two days after the president threatened serious punishment for officials who didn't quickly and accurately report cases of SARS.
Last week, Chinese leaders declared fighting SARS a national priority after weeks of criticism that the communist government reacted too slowly to the mysterious, deadly outbreak. The illness is believed to have originated in China.
Gao Qiang, an executive vice health minister, said the decision to cancel the May Day holiday beginning May 1 was made "to prevent the massive movement of people and the possible spread of the disease."
He acknowledged that the move "will mean massive losses in tourism revenue, but people's lives and health had to be put above everything."
May Day, the international holiday celebrating workers, has become a major way for China to boost its travel industry and pump cash into the economy.
In China, May Day, the Spring Festival and October's one-week National Day vacation set in motion some of largest mass movements of humanity on the planet.
The new fatalities raised China's death toll to 81 and its total number of reported cases to 1,814, Mr. Gao said at a news conference. The most dramatic jump was in Beijing.
In a rare admission, Mr. Gao said his ministry was not properly prepared for the outbreak and didn't give "clear instructions or effective guidance."
But he denied that SARS cases were intentionally hidden from investigators, warning that "any such act will be severely punished."
The first known SARS case occurred in southern China's Guangdong province in November. But no cases were disclosed until February. As SARS began to spread around the world, China faced charges that it wasn't sharing all of its statistics.
So far, officials have not detected the spread of SARS in large rural areas, Mr. Gao said. He noted that farmers have lower incomes and less access to medical care. If the outbreak hit the countryside, he said, "the consequences would be grim."
Across Asia, governments weighed tougher measures in their struggle to stop the outbreak that has killed at least 205 persons worldwide and infected more than 3,800, most of them in Asia.
Singapore ordered all 2,400 workers at its largest wholesale vegetable market quarantined and shut the market for 10 days after several SARS cases were reported there.
Dozens of police in face masks barricaded the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Center to keep people out. The closure will cause a "significant disruption" of vegetable supplies in the city-state, the government said.
After reporting a record 12 deaths in a single day Saturday, Hong Kong reported seven more yesterday as officials began re-evaluating the drug treatment being used in the modern metropolis, the world's hardest-hit with 88 deaths.

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