- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

HONOLULU — The Chinese government made a remarkable U-turn after its news blackout and attempted cover-up of the SARS epidemic failed spectacularly.

The Communist Party machinery suddenly encouraged more open reporting and ordered officials at all levels to be honest and forthright about conditions in their localities.

Though China’s long-held penchant for secrecy will hardly vanish overnight, a new trend is emerging. Besides bold reporting on severe acute respiratory syndrome, other sociopolitical issues have been more closely scrutinized since mid-April.

Most telling is the amount of information provided on an accident involving a People’s Liberation Navy submarine in the Yellow Sea that killed 70 sailors. China’s military has never before acknowledged such accidents.

In this case, state-run television showed China’s two senior leaders, President Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, meeting family members of those killed in the accident. Mr. Hu was quoted as saying that the accident should be seen as a way to prompt greater efforts at military modernization in China. As a specialist on Chinese security at Fudan University, Shen Dingli, observed: “This whole affair is a breakthrough for openness.”

A whole range of other issues has been put to greater scrutiny. In early May, China’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security announced that it would broaden the definition of “unemployed” to include the underemployed — a long-overdue move to increase the transparency of China’s urban labor markets. On May 16, professor Wu Zhongmin of the Central Party School wrote in the China Economic Times that the government should adjust its poverty line and revise its poverty figures.

Since the SARS crisis erupted, newspaper editorials have made more calls for reforming China’s health care system and other social welfare functions. One news report intimated that the Chinese State Council was considering regulations that would enshrine the people’s “right to know” and impose disclosure obligations on officials.

The openness, though, has not been complete. Guangdong officials still are providing minimal information on how the initial SARS outbreak started. As a senior reporter of a party newspaper put it, “It doesn’t matter if Hu Jintao has ordered more transparency. As long as your immediate boss does not tell you to speak to the press, you don’t do it.”

Sensitive political issues most likely will continue to be out of bounds, while local officials still will repress reporting on matters that may reflect badly on local conditions.

But even if the government attempts to rein in forces it set free once conditions return to normal, the fact remains that the legitimacy of Mr. Hu and Politburo member Wen Jiabao hinges to a considerable degree on continuing the trend toward greater government transparency.

China’s middle classes are disillusioned with how the system has handled the SARS epidemic, and foreign investors have lost a degree of confidence in China. In response to these pressures, China’s new leaders have undergone an image makeover.

As they did in the submarine disaster, they are presenting a humane and kind face. Highly publicized trips to the herders of Inner Mongolia and the coal miners of Shanxi early this year showed the two leaders as being concerned with the plight of China’s poor and disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, studies by the Central Party School and other think tanks have revealed an alarming increase of social inequities in China, conditions that easily could lead to severe incidents of unrest and political opposition to Communist Party rule.

In essence, China’s “fourth generation” leaders will be walking a tightrope. Too much openness could stir social unrest and delegitimize the party-state. Too little openness could lead to widespread cynicism that could come back to haunt the leadership during the next crisis.

The SARS crisis also illustrates how the Chinese party-state combines Maoist mass mobilization with modern methods of crisis management. If the effectiveness of these measures declines and the SARS epidemic persists beyond the summer or erupts again in the winter, major political repercussions cannot be ruled out.

But from today’s vantage point, the government seems to have produced considerable success in reining in the epidemic. If the measures are successful in containing the epidemic, China will not face, as some have argued, a “Chernobyl” of its own.

Nonetheless, the crisis is likely to accelerate plans to establish a bare-bones public health system for rural residents. It also will lead to reforms of the country’s disease reporting and response mechanisms.

A more consolidated and better coordinated public health surveillance system is a necessity, since the regulatory functions of China’s health system are a shambles. Vice Prime Minister Wu Yi announced in late April that the government planned to spend $422 million to set up a nationwide health network to fight SARS and other medical emergencies.

Despite inherent political and institutional obstacles, the SARS crisis may serve as an impetus for gradual change in China.

At the end of the day, the leaders must follow through on their words. Substantial efforts at narrowing the gap between rich and poor, and a general movement away from the single-minded pursuit of economic growth to focus more on issues of social welfare and justice are likely.

cChristopher McNally is a research fellow in politics, governance and security studies at the East-West Center in Honolulu. The full version of this essay will be published in “SARS Medicine, Money and Politics,” published by World Scientific Press.

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