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Sunday, June 29, 2003

China a laggard in preemptive reforms

HONG KONG -- When China sacked its health minister and the mayor of Beijing on Easter Sunday for their mishandling of the SARS crisis, many political analysts predicted that severe acute respiratory syndrome would have the same effect on China that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 had on the Soviet Union, accelerating political reform.

Commentators wrote knowledgeably about how the government was going to be open and accountable and how the media would be given unprecedented freedoms to report and criticize.

However, hopes for a relaxation of the Communist Party's control over the media were soon dashed. China blacked out a CNN interview that was critical of the government's handling of SARS. A former propaganda department official was installed as editor of Southern Weekend, one of the country's most daring newspapers, to rein it in.

And two editors and a reporter were dismissed over the publication of a report in the China Youth Daily saying that about 10 percent of female university students in Hubei province were working as prostitutes. An unfettered press, it became clear, was not one of the party's objectives, at least not now.

In mid-May, Premier Wen Jiabao promulgated a set of regulations for public health emergencies. "Government and health officials who cover up, delay reporting or report false figures will be demoted or dismissed," said a decree signed by the premier. "Those who cause an epidemic to spread and severely harm the health of the masses will be dismissed."

Even more significantly, the decree called on officials to provide information to the public. "The release of information must be swift, accurate and comprehensive," it asserted.

SARS was clearly a wake-up call to the Chinese government. Where health-care issues are concerned, China is likely to be more open and transparent. But will there be reforms in other areas as well?

It now appears that the answer is yes. Last week, the government announced that it was abolishing harsh regulations on the detention of vagrants. The custody and repatriation regulations -- formally known as Measures for Internment and Deportation of Urban Vagrants and Beggars -- promulgated in 1982, were abolished by the State Council. Beginning Aug. 1, the Ministry of Civil Affairs, not the police, will be responsible for dealing with rural migrants.

Migrant workers are vulnerable as a result of the vagrancy regulations. Many are arrested and are released only upon the payment of exorbitant fees by their friends and relatives.

The government move came after a public outcry over the death of Sun Zhigang, a graphic designer in Guangzhou who was detained because he was not carrying a valid residency permit.

Sun was arrested March 17, only 20 days after arriving in Guangzhou to work at a clothing company. Although his employer provided the relevant document within hours, Sun was kept in detention. Three days later, a clinic that treats migrants from the deportation center announced that the 27-year-old had died from a heart attack. But medical experts from Zhongshan University reported that the cause of death was severe internal bleeding caused by extensive beatings.

As a result of publicity stemming from Sun's death, three legal scholars wrote to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress asking for a review of the constitutionality of the detention measures. The State Council action, while welcome, is limited to one issue. It would have been better if the action had come from the NPC, since there are other laws and regulations whose constitutionality is in doubt.

Ironically, while the reform of detention powers was precipitated by a public whose outrage was fanned by media reports, the government is cracking down on the media, banning further reporting on the Sun incident, among other things.

So, while the new administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen is willing to make reforms in specific areas in response to developments, such as the SARS epidemic and the Sun case, so far it has not sought to institute reforms before tragedies occur.

Hu is expected to make a major speech Tuesday, the party's anniversary, which is likely to include reform proposals. That speech should make it clear just how reformist the new authorities in China are going to be. But as long as China puts stability ahead of everything else, major political reforms are unlikely.

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

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