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Monday, April 14, 2003

China stumbles on SARS and Pyongyang

LOS ANGELES -- Mistake-making is a common occupation of governments everywhere, but lately the Chinese government has made two monster blunders that uncomfortably reopen the question of whether China has made all that much progress after all. The issues concern North Korea and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

In general, Chinese diplomacy has been otherwise nimble if conservative. But it has been embarrassingly clumsy on North Korea. Asked (reasonably enough) by Washington to step up the pressure on Pyongyang to drop its nuclear-weapons program, Beijing has said it lacks leverage. This hapless claim flies in the face of credulity. If China does wield scant influence over its former soul mate, those in charge of its North Korean policy should be fired.

Year after year of substantial aid and ideological comfort to the North should not yield so little in return. If China aspires to be the most influential power in the region, it can scarcely hope to attain that with ineffective policies. Beijing urgently needs to locate some leverage before the Pentagon starts to view North Korea as another Iraq.

Domestically, China has made many good moves, but its inept handling of the SARS epidemic rekindles old fears. In the end, the SARS epidemic will be controlled, and the current scare perhaps found overwrought. But it's deeply unnerving that China failed to report the SARS outbreak to the international community when it first surfaced in Guangdong last fall and then sought to cover up the subsequent outbreak up north, including Beijing.

When signing onto international conventions governing economic behavior (World Trade Organization), not to mention health conduct (World Health Organization), a signatory in effect stipulates that it is not infantile like Myanmar but rather a true adult player on the global stage. Yet in at least the two respects mentioned here, China has seemed a nation behaving badly.

China's recent stumbles were enabled by its conspicuous failure to normalize relations between the central government (with its overarching concern for national image and internal control) and the country's media. In general, the latter are yearning to become more like Japan's and South Korea's (professional and vigorous) and less like Cuba's and North Korea's (arms of Big Brother). Had the media been able to do its job, the full dimensions of the SARS outbreak would have been more quickly reported not just to the international media community but even to the central government itself.

Chinese leaders need to reference the pioneering work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. The Harvard and Cambridge don argues that social catastrophes (such as extended periods of widespread starvation) are more likely in societies that suppress the press. Thus, India, since its independence in 1947, has suffered no major famines, whereas in China 10 million people, at the very least, have died from famines since then.

The urgency doesn't require the overnight installation of a Western-style press but the evolution of a news media more consistent with China's self-proclaimed need for greater national transparency. That valuable quality has begun to characterize the work of its business press, which increasingly offers objective and penetrating accounts of the nation's economic and business opportunities and woes. But the official lid has been kept on its general and political press.

The desire to invest in and trade with China will abate to the extent the most populous nation is seen to be stuck in the medieval past of Mao Zedong. To avoid that image the regime must loosen the reins on its news media. China requires not only better and quicker public reporting about its problems but also more open debate about its public policies, foreign and domestic.

"The public," Sen once said, "has to see itself not merely as a patient, but as an agent of change." The government and ruling party of China believe they can do it all by themselves. But as the world is finding out, they can't.

Perhaps our expectations became unrealistic after the resurgence of 1979, when a frustrated China threw out the Little Red economic book and got down to business. And perhaps we were too impressed by the apparent pragmatism and Western dress-and-style of leaders Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji.

Whatever the reason -- whether wishing the star-crossed Chinese people a long-overdue streak of luck or self-interestedly hoping to sell them a billion burgers -- the world has had great expectations. But if China doesn't start elevating its standards, the world will start lowering its own expectations. SARS and North Korea offer a wake-up call for the incoming government of President Hu Jintao.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser. His column is distributed internationally by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.

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