TCS Daily

SARS Is a Cure

By Jeremy Slater - June 9, 2003 12:00 AM

Nearly six months since the original outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) it seems, at least in China's case, that the disease is coming under control. Recent reports from Beijing and the World Health Organization suggest that the number of deaths and newly reported cases is declining. For some other countries this is not the case, although with a better flow of information from China to other parts of the world the number of incidences of the disease may start to fall soon.

Though the outcome may give the Chinese government a chance to show its people that it acted in a professional manner, there are likely to be serious political repercussions for the one-party system beyond just the resignation of one or two of its senior members. For despite the benefits of China's spectacular economic turnaround in the past 20 years, reform of its political apparatus has been decidedly lacking over the same period.

With a booming economy producing increasingly wealthy and confident middle and upper classes, the SARS outbreak may be the catalyst for the biggest questioning of the way the Communist Party and its apparatchiks operate since the Tiananmen Square student uprising of 1989. Thanks to heavy media coverage, the Chinese have been given an opportunity to question their leaders' actions and to scrutinize government policy. Despite the reporting of the heroic endeavors of hospital staff in Beijing as well as the Guangdong province, where the virus originated, people may have less belief in what the government tells them than before. A further impetus for a new questioning attitude is that officials have resigned, such as Health Minister Zhang Wenkang, a very rare occurrence in Chinese politics. Could this mean more democracy on the way or is the Communist party hierarchy acting in a more open and politically savvy way?

The fact that China has a new president, Hu Jintao, after 13 years of Jiang Zemin's rule, suggests the latter. Change may force itself on the new leader just as it did with newly appointed Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR following the near seismic effects of the Chernobyl meltdown in 1987.

Change may also come from outside as China, already a growing economic power on the world stage, realizes it has responsibilities beyond its borders. Now a member of the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, China may find itself under increasing pressure from other countries demanding a more communitarian course of action than perhaps was tolerated before. The Chinese government may also face pressure from the international business community for increasing transparency. Business leaders abhor cover-ups, as they could badly effect their investment and strategic planning. There have been no noticeable changes in businesses' attitudes to the Chinese market as yet, apart from a significant fall in air flights taken to China, but the SARS epidemic might force the government to reveal more about the state of the country than it has done up until now - if only to reassure companies, which are keen to gain access to a potentially massive market.

Throughout this crisis the WHO has behaved diplomatically, acting as the world's paramedic rather than the senior consultant in charge of pointing the finger. It is now receiving daily reports from the People's Republic and intends to use this data as part of its findings for a global conference on the outbreak of the disease to be held in Malaysia this month. It is highly unlikely that China will be openly admonished for the handling of the disease. At the end of May the WHO also produced a resolution demanding an increase in international cooperation in the event of the outbreak of any transmutable disease.

The Chinese Communist party is now under more external scrutiny than ever before - and this could have an impact internally. As China strives to be a fully paid up member of the international community it will increasingly have to operate according to the club rules and all because of what was, until a few months ago, a little known disease. Whether the repercussions from the SARS epidemic will produce as swift a transition from one-party state to budding democracy as happened in Russia in the late 1980s still remains to be seen, but the fallout from the disease means that the world's expectations have changed and so, now, will China.

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