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Monday, May 5, 2003

China still hasn't learned the right lesson

HONG KONG -- The dismissal on Easter Sunday of Chinese Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong for their role in covering up the seriousness of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic was the biggest governmental shakeup in over a decade and has far-reaching ramifications.

For one thing, it suggests that the ruling Communist Party now acknowledges that it is not only wrong but also impossible to hide the extent of an infectious disease. By the dismissals, the party signals that it recognizes that the health of the Chinese people, as well as the health of people around the globe, is more important than the party's desire to minimize the reporting of problems in order to encourage economic growth and social stability.

All signs indicate that the Chinese leadership is now determined to be truly upfront with the international community regarding the seriousness of the situation and what is being done to cope with it.

Before the turnabout on April 20, the official propaganda apparatus was denouncing all those who voiced skepticism about the Chinese figures. The China Daily, for example, on April 9 denounced those who had criticized China's handling of the SARS epidemic as "an anti-China clique." As recently as April 17, the online edition of the People's Daily labeled critics as "malicious."

The article specifically denounced The Wall Street Journal for saying, "Even today, China still refuses to give the WHO all necessary information." A few days later, China admitted that it had suppressed information not only to the World Health Organization but to its own people.

So far, though, the Chinese government still hasn't apologized for having misled the international community and for letting the virus infect the whole world. Nor has it retracted its denunciations of critics who have been proven right.

There has also been no indication that the Guangdong officials who were involved in the coverup from the beginning have been disciplined. China still doesn't even acknowledge that the epidemic originated in that province.

President Hu Jintao recently met with Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, and said the central government "attached great importance to the well-being and health of the people in Hong Kong." It would have been far better if the central government had acted early enough to prevent the spread of the disease to Hong Kong.

In a sense, the dismissal of Zhang and Meng constitutes an injustice. No doubt, the two men had not presented an accurate picture of the epidemic in Beijing. However, the party leadership knew full well that the ministry had no jurisdiction over military hospitals, where the vast majority of cases were being handled.

No doubt, the two men were doing their jobs as they saw fit. They were simply acting in the tradition of the Communist Party, lying when necessary to save face for the party and the government. The two were, in a sense, sacrificed to appease the international community.

Zhang, of course, has no chance to tell his side of the story. A minister is simply not at a high enough level to decide on a coverup, especially when he is trying to cover up the extent to which the disease has spread in the country, rather than his own mistakes.

Even today, China's leaders probably feel that they did no wrong in playing down the epidemic. It is just that, this time, they were found out.

Of course, we don't know how high up the coverup went. But it is difficult to believe that China's top leaders, such as President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, were unaware of events in Guangdong for five months.

One reason why the epidemic was able to spread was that it went largely unreported within China. The media had been told not to write about it, and to focus only on good, uplifting news. Even today, while the press is free to criticize the men who have been dismissed, it is unable to report whether higher-level officials had condoned their actions.

What is needed is a change in the system. The party should give the media a free hand to conduct investigations and to report, and let the chips fall where they may. It is also vital for there to be an independent press that is not bound by party discipline.

But China's leaders don't seem to have learned this lesson. Li Changchun, the party official in charge of propaganda, has just called on the media to "help unite the people and boost public moral" in the fight against SARS.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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