Despite the dominance of the Iraq story, China is back in the headlines, with the country excoriated for its evasiveness about the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, and praised for its suddenly constructive role in convening in helping to bring about negotiations between the US and North Korea, over Pyongyang's nuclear insubordination. What do these two seemingly disparate responses tell us about China and its evolving place in the world?
China's response to the SARS epidemic suggests an almost automatic defensiveness when the outside world seems to impinge on it or threaten it in some potentially harmful or embarrassing way.
In this sense, the legacy of China's humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries still exerts a powerful influence, despite the emergence of a globalized "New China" over the last two decades. These experiences became burned so deeply into the Chinese psyche that even China's current economic and political rise has not overcome an underlying sense of victimization and grievance.
It would not be too extreme to say that China has fashioned a whole identity out of its historical victimization. The Maoist ideological mindset grew out of Lenin's theory of imperialism, which, aided by endless barrages of propaganda against capitalism, colonialism, and foreign hegemony, tended to reinforce the sense of national humiliation. Party spokesmen still often say that some foreign intervention has "wounded the feelings of the Chinese people" when they feel that China has been unfairly victimized.
This deep-seated suspicion of international exploitation fuels a predator/victim perspective that focuses blame on the outside world. So China's first reaction to SARS was to bury the news of a public health epidemic in the making.
Such secretiveness -- rooted in fear of humiliation -- has been the Chinese Communist Party's traditional response to bad news. It was better to hush up the mass famine that killed 30 million people following the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s than to seem to be in need of foreign help.
Nowadays, the country's communist leaders acted as if they believed that disclosing SARS would risk tarnishing China's "economic miracle" and driving away foreign direct investment (FDI) -- some US$50 billion last year, or 80 percent of all FDI made in Asia. Why not just keep the fledgling epidemic under wraps and hope that it goes away without the world ever knowing?
When the SARS epidemic broke out in Guangdong Province, the government's first impulse was, indeed, to be secretive, manipulate statistics, pressure the media into silence, distort the magnitude of the epidemic, and impede the World Health Organization from getting involved early. Even after the epidemic appeared in Hong Kong and then spread to Beijing, officials continued to withhold information. Only under the most biting international criticism and censure did China grudgingly admit that there were 340 cases in Beijing, with over 400 more suspected cases.
This kind of insular reaction to a fundamentally global problem is self-destructive. It reflects lingering discomfort with a global world of greater transparency, freedom of expression, and a diminished reliance on absolute sovereignty. In short, China's initial reaction to SARS -- like its disastrous early handling of its AIDS epidemic -- is a throwback to its old pre-reform approach to problems.