Thu, May 01, 2003 - Page 8 News List

China's leaders playing politics with health

By Paul Lin 林保華

Since severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) first appeared last November in Guangdong Province before spreading via Hong Kong to the rest of the world, officials at all levels in Beijing have been deceiving their own people and the outside world. The curtain was not lifted until after the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), met with Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) on April 12 in Shenzhen. Following that meeting, Hu went to Guang-zhou and publicly announced that he was "anxious" about this contagious disease.

Hu's recent tour to the south recalls Deng Xiaoping's (鄧小平) southern tour in 1992. At that time, Deng had already retired from all of his posts. He had even handed the chairman's position at the Central Military Commission to former president Jiang Zemin (江澤民). But Jiang perversely engaged in "opposition to peaceful evolution," and it became difficult for Deng to exercise his influence in Beijing. So Deng went to Guangdong and spoke to the rest of China, calling for reform and also declaring that anyone who didn't undertake reforms would have to step down.

The circumstances of Hu's recent tour to the south were very strange. He left Beijing on April 10 with the primary intent of understanding the SARS problem, but his first stop was in Zhanjiang. Only after that apparent feint did he double back to Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

Meanwhile, back in Beijing, Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) was still claiming on April 13 that the epidemic was under control and telling people not to worry about travelling. It isn't clear whether Wen was deliberately deceiving people or whether he was also kept in the dark about Hu's real reason for travelling to the south. After Hu had spoken out in the south, however, Wen immediately fell into step with the new line . This shows that they are still, at least, cooperating.

Since preventive measures came too late and the government's credibility is nil, it is understandable that people are fleeing Beijing in a panic and trying to stockpile supplies, even as relatively accurate statistics on death and infection emerge. The strange thing is that in confronting this major crisis of the post-Tiananmen era, only a few leaders are stepping forward to take action. On April 17, Hu presided over a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee to discuss the SARS problem, and he forbade under-reporting of the epidemic -- in a pointed response to the falsifications by military hospitals.

But of the Politburo Standing Committee members, only Hu and Wen have stepped into the foreground. The only other person to take a clear leadership position has been Vice Premier Wu Yi (吳儀), who is not a member of the Standing Committee and is a relative political lightweight.

Jiang's trusted proteges, who are squatting on the Politburo Standing Committee, did not taken a stand, which added to the weird atmosphere. These people only reacted on April 25, and probably then under pressure. On that afternoon, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress met in small groups to review a SARS work report delivered by Wu Yi on behalf of the State Council. National People's Congress Standing Committee Chairman Wu Bangguo (吳邦國) took part in the group discussions, but he was not reported to have stated any suggestions or opinions on the matter.

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