London, 24 April 2003
A health minister fired. A cover-up admitted to. Is China headed in a new direction?
WHEN news of the catastrophe broke, it was because scientists in free, neighbouring countries had detected what the Communist authorities knew about, but had tried to conceal. With a leader of just a few months' standing in power, political uncertainty reinforced the tendency of party apparatchiks to conceal bad news, not just from the outside world but from each other. But contamination is no respecter of boundaries. In the end, with the world beating at their doors in search of answers, the Communists were forced to come clean. Obfuscation turned to breast-beating, bureaucratic heads rolled, and suddenly the press was permitted to probe and criticise its masters. And what happens next?
What indeed? The version of events just given fits not just China, which this week started to face up to the extent of its failure to control the spread of the disease SARS, a previously unknown but potentially deadly respiratory virus that is now taking a widening toll worldwide (see article). It was also the response of the Soviet Union to the explosion of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in April 1986. What happened next in the Soviet Union was pretty spectacular. The explosion, which took place only a year after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, is now regarded as a great accelerator of the programmes of glasnostand perestroika, of openness and restructuring. These helped, just three years later, to bring down first the Soviet empire, then the Soviet Union itself and the Communist Party. So is SARS China's Chernobyl; or will the chain-reaction this time be controlled?
Caution is in order: there are some obvious differences between China in 2003 and the Soviet Union in 1986. First, socialism with Chinese characteristics is an economic success storyChina has just posted a growth rate of 9.9% for the first quarter of this yearwhereas Soviet communism was a bust. True, China's economic development is lopsided, the figures dubious, the risk of social tension palpable. But there is simply no comparison with the dilapidated, aftershave-swigging wreck over which Mr Gorbachev presided. Second, China has already had one experiment with political reform, the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, which were ruthlessly suppressed. Under Mr Gorbachev, reform was already being encouraged, albeit haltingly: glasnost and PERESTROIKA had been launched just before Chernobyl, not in response to it. And China does not appear to be in any danger of losing, or even fighting, a war; the late 1980s had marked the humiliation of Russia's army in Afghanistan. For all these reasons, China's new leaders are no doubt hoping they can ride out the storm unleashed by their own incompetence and duplicity.
Yet it would be a mistake to assume that nothing will change. The events of the last few days have been momentous. The government has been forced to admit that it has been lying, understating the number of SARS cases in Beijing more than tenfold. This raises big questions about the reliability of its other figures, such as the unbelievable assertion that there are only two cases in all of teeming Shanghai. By being forced to resign as health minister, Zhang Wenkang has made history of a kind. He is the first minister since the Communists seized power in 1949 to be sacked mid-crisis on a policy matter. (The mayor of Beijing, Meng Xuenong, went too: the better-connected governor of Guangdong province, where SARS started, remains in place.)
There have been other upheavals, of course: the sacking, and subsequent trial, of Chen Xitong, an earlier mayor of Beijing, on corruption charges; the ousting of Zhao Ziyang as general secretary of the party in the power struggle that accompanied the tumult of 1989. But this is a bit different: minister presides over policy bungle; bungle is exposed, to public outcry; minister resigns to take the rap. It almost looks like the way that politics works in a democratic, accountable country. Chinese people might start to get a taste for it.
The case is significant, too, in that it marks the first sign of political innovation from China's new leadership. Just as in Russia in 1986, China has an untried man in charge. Hu Jintao, who took over as China's president last month, has been party boss only since November. Like Mr Gorbachev then, he is feeling his way. Unlike Mr Gorbachev, he has a very-much alive predecessor, Jiang Zemin, keeping an eye on him from his perch as commander-in-chief of China's army. On March 28th, Mr Hu said that the media ought to spend less time reporting on official meetings, and more on matters that people care about.
That could be a signal that times are changing. Or again, it could be an aberration. The real Mr Hu may be the one who has been a party to the whole sorry saga since last November, when the first cases of SARS occurred in Guangdong, but were hushed up. It took until this month for inspectors from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to be allowed to visit China. Mr Hu himself has yet to offer any form of public apology. And lest the press be tempted to run away with the story, and start scrutinising too much, they will doubtless recall that it was on Mr Hu's watch that a relatively outspoken Guangdong newspaper, 21st Century World Herald, was closed down for daring to print heretical opinions about the need for a bit more political reform.
Teeth for the WHO
The political ramifications of SARS in China are intriguing but, for most people, it is the medical ones that matter more. Put bluntly, can Asia and the world have any confidence that China will grapple properly with SARS? More difficult yet more important, can it take steps to ensure that it does not continue to cook up nasty viruses to unleash? Though it is not certain where the great flu pandemic of 1918 started, many of the lesser flu epidemics that now appear every couple of years are known to originate in China. There are reasons for this: people living cheek by jowl, and in close proximity to pigs and poultry, animals from which this type of virus is thought to jump to humans. China is, simultaneously, a very poor, very densely populated and, these days, very globally-connected country. This is a tricky combination. Then there is the climate of secrecy over health matters. These are often classed as state secrets. Local authorities were not allowed to discuss the SARS problem openly until authorised to do so by the State Council.
Were SARS, instead of being a natural virus, a man-made weapon of mass destruction, there would be a framework for dealing with it. Nuclear and chemical weapons are subject to stringent inspection regimes. Despite the extra difficulties, there is a good case for beefing up rules for tracking diseases. Air travel links any city on earth with every other city in 24 hours or so, so there are clear global interests at stake. Had it acted more responsibly, China could perhaps have nipped SARS in the bud, running the risk of some economic pain in the short term, but saving itself from far greater damage later on. Membership of the WHO ought to carry duties as well as benefits. Members could perhaps be required to pledge that WHO scientists be given an absolute right of access to their hospitals and health ministries at the first sign of trouble.
This sort of intrusion would doubtless be difficult for a government as secretive as China's to accept. But learning to live with that kind of affront is part and parcel of what being a full and responsible member of the international community entails. In its belated and still only partial acceptance of its responsibilities, perhaps China is starting to understand this, and to become a more normal country.