Sat, May 03, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Beijing never could do the math

By Lee Tuo-tzu 李拓梓

Due to relentless attacks from the international media, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) have finally spoken out and demanded an investigation into the cover-up of China's SARS epidemic. Former minister of health Zhang Wenkang (張文康) and Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong (孟學農) became the first high-ranking political casualties of the epidemic when they were sacked for their handling of the outbreak. Subsequently, when questioned by reporters about the true state of affairs, Vice Minister of Health Gao Qiang (高強) gave an intriguing response: "What can I do to make you believe me?"

The late historian Ray Huang (黃仁宇) noted on many occasions that a problem with classical China was that it couldn't be made "mathematically manageable." In his memoirs, he describes at length how the methodological grievances he had with US Sinologists in his research on the Ming dynasty's government finances stemmed from his belief that the sum of all local data did not equal national data.

He concluded that "rapidly establishing a mechanism for mathematical management" would be the key to China's modernization. Numerous academics and experts have in recent years expressed their lack of confidence in China's economic data. They believe Beijing's deceptive or sleight-of-hand models of financial practice are merely postponing a financial crisis.

Even today, despite its enormous size, China is still unable to establish a mechanism for mathematical management.

Now the spread of SARS has highlighted this problem just when China is hoping to become a more integral part of the world community. Political reform is a challenge that can't be dodged. But first it is important to clarify why Zhang and Meng covered up the epidemic, for two reasons.

First, the cries for reform heard after the Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) 11th Central Committee in December 1978 have already been replaced by the belief that "stability is of paramount importance." Of course, during the CCP's 16th National Congress, as well as the 10th National People's Congress and the 10th Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in March, it was taboo to rock the boat in any way, but the original desire to cover up the epidemic arose from the fear that reporting on it would cause panic.

But the Internet and cellphone text messaging are too highly developed for such secrecy to be maintained. Thus covering up the epidemic for the sake of stability backfired and gave rise to even greater dissatisfaction and widespread panic.

Second, China remains unable to implement "mathematical management." Neither Hu, Wen nor the general public know what the real statistics are. They couldn't announce them if they wanted to.

These two reasons show that the cover-up was a kind of structurally inevitable reaction.

Another difficulty faced by the CCP is that the urgency of political reform has once again been nakedly revealed. No doubt Meng and Zhang were simply scapegoats, but this action inevitably appeared to the public as an attempt to posture as a "highly capable government" to salvage some credibility. However, many problems that have arisen in the course of economic reforms all involve politics. If no attempt is made to solve them, these problems will continue to arise repeatedly.

For example, everyone is watching to see the drama unfolding around Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua (黃華華). Huang's enormous power derives from Beijing because the establishment of the echelon succession system put in place mandatory retirement age limits for officials of every rank. As Guangdong is a large province, the possibility for officials there to be promoted into the ranks of the central government is relatively great, and in the wrangling between the central and local governments, few officials are willing to insist on local interests and give up the possibility of promotion.

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