Commentary: SARS: An Amazing About-Face in Beijing

By Dexter Roberts

The announcement was shocking, for foreign China watchers and ordinary Chinese alike. On Apr. 20, after weeks of stonewalling, top Chinese officials admitted to incompetence in dealing with the spreading severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic. That led to a near-unprecedented decision to fire the national Health Minister and the mayor of Beijing for their roles in hiding what has clearly become a domestic and international crisis.

To get a sense of the magnitude of this moment, consider China's history. This is the same Communist Party whose cadres lied so blatantly about failed farm output that as many as 30 million people died from starvation during the Great Leap Forward. The same party that has yet to acknowledge the massacre of hundreds, maybe thousands, of students and others at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The same party that has long assumed that the laobaixing -- the common folk -- are better off not knowing too much.

Against this background of secrecy as policy, the about-face in Beijing is extraordinary. And it triggers some big questions: Is this sudden candor the beginning of a new era of openness and responsibility in China? Are President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, China's new leaders, secret reformers with a plan for a kind of Chinese glasnost? It is much too soon to tell, but their government's frank discussion of its failure to deal with the epidemic may have released a genie that can't be put back in the bottle.

For starters, Hu and Wen have certainly realized that the new China -- the one that takes in $52 billion in foreign investment a year and churns out billions in exports -- can't afford to continue in isolation. Wen acknowledged as much in a speech in April, when he suggested that given China's tattered health-care system, SARS could spread across the country "before we know it" and "the con- sequences could be too dreadful to contemplate."

And amazingly, for the first time since Tiananmen, a great Chinese crisis is unfolding for all of China, and the world, to see. Beijing appears to be giving new freedom to its media to report on the disaster. The Apr. 20 press conference announcing the firings was broadcast live, and afterward, newspapers began to publish front-page reports on SARS.

Of course, some of these moves could be just a clever form of propaganda: Focus the criticism on the two sacked officials, and hope the citizenry doesn't ask uncomfortable questions about the rest of the leadership. That's why it's important to see how the government handles other sticky issues. On the health side, the regime could start by acknowledging the seriousness of China's HIV/AIDS epidemic and institute strong preventive measures. Perhaps the new openness in health could lead to frank discussion in the press and other public forums of problems like rampant tax evasion and even official corruption.

Hu and Wen will also have plenty of opportunities to show a new candor as the SARS crisis unfolds. Beijing's decision to close down the capital's schools for two weeks, and rumors of more draconian measures to restrict travel between Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities by plane, train, and car, have the populace on edge. There are bound to be more revelations of official mistakes -- and more heads may roll, perhaps in Guangdong or Shanghai.

It's not going to be easy overcoming the panic spreading in China. But however uncomfortable they are with the process, the leaders should continue to create an opening in China -- not for foreign investment, but for the truth. That's the one bit of good that could come out of SARS.

Roberts covers Chinese business and economics from Beijing.

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