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Commentary: How SARS Is Invigorating China's Communists

By Dexter Roberts

Will the SARS crisis lead to political glasnost in China? As the disease begins to recede, at least until next winter, it would be tempting to think so. Early in the outbreak, China's citizens grew furious with the communist authorities for covering up the ravages of the disease. Then, faced with a public-relations disaster, President Hu Jintao pledged to make accountability the new watchword -- a promise that has now spread beyond the subject of health care. The Chinese media, belatedly encouraged to report more openly on the crisis, are getting a new writ to ferret out other cases of malfeasance, corruption, and labor abuses. There's even some debate about political reforms, including finding ways to make the party more responsive to public concerns, enhancing the role of the National People's Congress, and amending the constitution to increase the rights of private enterprise. Heads are rolling, too. On June 12, China's two top naval officials were fired, apparently in response to an April submarine accident that claimed the lives of 70 sailors in China's Bohai Sea.