Tue, May 13, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Doomed by a lack of accountability

By Hsu Szu-chien 徐斯儉

The SARS outbreak has significantly affected China's politics. The international media has mostly focused on the SARS epidemic's impact on the Chinese political situation. But what really de-serves our attention is how flawed China's political system has proven to be in the wake of the epidemic.

First, the civilian administration in Beijing can hardly control the military. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always stressed the idea of the party leading the military. All troops are controlled by the party's Central Military Commission, chaired by former president Jiang Zemin (江澤民), rather than by the government system through the State Council.

However, SARS prevention is the responsibility of both President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) -- who serves concurrently as the party's secretary-general and the commission's vice chairman -- and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶). As a result, the Hu-Wen system is unable to control the epidemic at military hospitals. This was also a major cause of Beijing's SARS outbreak.

Similar problems will constantly occur, and more than one government will continue to exist in China if it does not have a single leadership that controls both the party and the military in the future.

Second, the central government's control of the local governments is weak. Although Beijing has requested that local governments report epidemic information, the central government does not know whether the reported number of SARS cases is accurate. Hence, it has to send out teams, or even rely on World Health Organization (WHO) experts to find out the truth for it.

The central government also has to constantly threaten to dismiss those irresponsible officials and has no idea whether it will receive complete information on the epidemic nationwide.

Third, the party's control over the media is tight. The spread of the disease is generally believed to be related to the regime's cover-up of the epidemic at first. In fact, all the media are led by the party's propaganda department.

The regime is absolutely capable of completely blocking certain news if it desires to do so. On the other hand, for more sensitive news that is not officially banned by the department, the media usually report it to a certain degree in an effort to boost sales. Reports on the SARS epidemic were blocked until early last month.

The media's simultaneous reactions served as proof of the department's ban on SARS reports earlier. If the party still does not give greater freedom to the media in the future, and the media still cannot give full play to their function as an early-warning system, then similar disasters may break out again.

Fourth, both information feedback from rural areas and public resource management mechanisms are poor and ineffective. The disease has not yet spread into the rural areas, where medical resources are lacking. But numerous workers are now running away from big cities to their hometowns on China's crowded transportation system.

The public health system has lagged far behind in the rural areas because of long-term ignorance and unbalanced development. Both the epidemic information and public medical resources are insufficient. Once massive outbreaks of the illness take place there, all cities are likely to close down. This will further worsen the gap between China's urban and rural areas.

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