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.

But before anyone proclaims Hu the next Gorbachev, consider this: The new government's success in stamping out SARS appears to have rejuvenated something not normally associated with glasnost -- the most retro elements of China's Communist Party. As incredible as it may seem, the same Chinese and foreign observers who berated Beijing for bungling SARS in its initial stages are crediting the party for its success in mobilizing the country to fight the disease. Because of SARS, many Chinese hate the party. But also because of SARS, many are starting to praise it.

Just look at how Beijing, once it got going, fought the disease. The measures were taken right out of the old Mao playbook. Long-dormant neighborhood watch committees dusted off their red armbands and started monitoring the health of their communities -- making sure families regularly checked temperatures and that those with fevers stayed home. And it was the strong arm of the party that made it possible for Beijing to isolate SARS patients through mandatory quarantines and by shutting schools and businesses. "The people are more willing to follow the Communist Party's leadership now," says Zhong Ling, a 21-year-old electrical engineering student at Jiangsu University who was confined to his campus for more than a month. "You can see that the government has gained much prestige." And Dr. David L. Heymann, the World Health Organization's executive director for communicable diseases, has lauded the "huge efforts that have been made by China to contain SARS."

The growing admiration for the old party ways doesn't stop there. Some now argue that a stronger and more accountable party and government should play a key role in fixing China's broken health-care system. While no one expects China to bring back its barefoot doctors, the rapid spread of SARS is being seen as a wake-up call that Beijing can't ignore. Indeed, the party is the only organization in the country with the reach and strength to build a national surveillance system that could quickly spot and isolate future epidemics. "What people have lost during health disasters will surely be compensated if we can learn some lessons in the process," Premier Wen Jiabao said at a meeting of health experts in Beijing on June 16, according to the news agency Xinhua.

And many now say it's time to put more resources of the central government into rebuilding health care nationwide -- and to stop relying on localities and a decentralized system to provide care. "We must focus on social development and invest in basic public health and education," says Hu Angang, a scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "The government and the party realize this and are taking a new direction."

The SARS episode obviously does not mark the return of the party's leading role in all aspects of Chinese life. But if Hu plays his cards right, he could profit from his countrymen's ambivalence about the party to revive the crumbling authority of the cadres. Some economic analysts, for example, believe the party should use its muscle to overcome local protectionism and ensure that recalcitrant industries across China live up to the market-opening commitments made to the World Trade Organization. Although the party has been known to rein in wayward members in the past, its newfound vigor may help it be more effective in mounting a well-orchestrated, nationwide clampdown on WTO violations. That, many analysts say, could reassure potential foreign investors who now fear the odds are stacked against them in mainland markets.

There's little doubt that Hu and the rest of China's new leaders want the public to believe they're serving the interests of the working class, not just the political elites. So the party has started to exercise control over local officials accustomed to levying rapacious taxes and fees, flouting environmental regulations in their rush to development, and ignoring workers' rights. On June 16, for instance, a Guangdong court held 18 local officials responsible for the beating death of a textile worker -- unusual in a country where millions of migrant laborers are routinely mistreated. "The party has a good capacity to learn," says Tsinghua University's Hu. In the future, "it will pay more attention to the basic human rights of China's farmers and workers."

Hu Jintao might even be ready to push accountability further -- far beyond what the cadres of the Mao era would ever have dared imagine. Hu has set up a special body led by Wu Bangguo, head of the National People's Congress, to study the possibility of amending China's constitution. One key goal would be to further enshrine the rights of the private sector, which already produces more than half of China's gross domestic product. "They are likely to revise the constitution to give more freedom to entrepreneurs," says Shi Yinhong, a professor at People's University. "We are seeing some progress toward democratization." And Beijing is abuzz with reports that at the 74th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party, on July 1, Hu will make a call for allowing multiple candidates in many elections, including mayoral and gubernatorial contests.

Don't expect that to mean the creation of real opposition parties. That's not in the cards. Why should Hu and his policymakers bother with such a gambit, anyway? Despite his flirtation with glasnost, Hu's aim surely remains saving the party, not abolishing it -- and the party today has far more goodwill among the people than it did just a few months ago. Besides, so far at least, Hu has been able to subtly channel any anger ordinary citizens feel about the party's failings toward the regime of former President Jiang Zemin. A clever ploy. But it also means that in the next crisis, Hu's administration may be much less willing to face up to its own responsibility. Until that crisis comes, though, SARS may provide the Communist Party with a precious opportunity to win back some of its battered credibility.

Beijing Bureau Chief Roberts has reported on Chinese politics and business since 1995.

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