- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Hu's in charge. That's not a question. That's the message Beijing is trying to send this week about newly installed President Hu Jintao, whose leadership abilities have been in doubt over official bungling of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome crisis. On Sunday, in a move to direct blame for SARS away from the president, China's Communist Party fired Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong. Despite the dismissals, China's leadership troubles are far from over.
The fact that Beijing fired such high-level fall guys exposes political nervousness at party headquarters. The number of SARS cases is rising every day, and there's still a sense that Beijing hasn't come clean about the illness. As Gordon G. Chang, author of "The Coming Collapse of China," explained to us yesterday: "The big story of SARS is the defiance of the people. For the first time since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, the Chinese public is finding its voice and protesting the party line. Even Chinese health officials have expressed anger and contradicted the government. The party acted when people left them no choice."
Deflecting some attention away from SARS are negotiations in Beijing starting today between the United States and North Korea. The hope is that some agreement can be hammered out to end Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program. American officials, fresh off a quick victory in Iraq, are confident that the overwhelming show of U.S. military strength has convinced North Korea that it's prudent to cooperate with the superpower rather than provoke it. On Sunday, President Bush said, "The key thing in the North Korea agenda is that China is assuming a very important responsibility. China's policy is for a nuclear-weapons-free peninsula. And now that they're engaged in the process, it makes it more likely that's going to occur."
We hope that is the case, though it's wise not to get too optimistic too soon. Getting Washington and Pyongyang to the negotiating table represents a compromise for both sides, but it remains to be seen whether substantive progress can be made on the issue of nukes. To be sure, it is good news that China, under Mr. Hu, has taken a policy U-turn and decided to play a positive role in the process. For decades, the People's Republic of China has been North Korea's largest supporter, and until weeks ago seemed determined to pretend the regime of Kim Jong Il wasn't a problem.
It's obviously in China's self interest that its neighbor not become a nuclear power, as the Middle Kingdom has the most to lose economically and geopolitically if it does. Primarily, it should be clear that some nation in the region will fill the power vacuum to check North Korea if China doesn't. The most likely candidate is Japan, over and toward which the rogue state has fired missiles. Recent polls have shown that one-third of Japan's Diet supports changing the country's pacifist constitution to allow its military which is now legally limited to defensive capability only to project force. At more than $40 billion annually, Japan already is fourth in the world in military spending behind the United States, Russia and China. Now there's talk of Tokyo going nuclear and ballistic which experts estimate it could do in less than a year if America can't stop Pyongyang's program. This would alter the balance of power in the Pacific in a way that would greatly diminish China's position.
Mr. Hu is in charge of China, but not entirely. While the new president is head of the party, for practical purposes he still splits control of the nation with former President Jiang Zemin, who has remained the leader of the military. This unique power-sharing arrangement was evident in the weekend firings, which sacrificed one man from each faction Mr. Zhang being a Jiang crony, Mr. Meng from the Hu camp. Despite political complications and delay, Beijing now has taken action to confront both the SARS and North Korean issues. We hope this signals that Mr. Hu understands that the key to solving problems is to engage.


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