Mon, May 19, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Hu tightens grip with anti-SARS campaign

By Benjamin Lim  /  REUTERS , BEIJING

Seizing opportunity from crisis over the SARS epidemic, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) is emerging from his first real test as the nation's new leader with a surer grip on power.

Late last month, the political climate could hardly have been less welcoming for the president, who took the office in March to cap a sweeping leadership transition.

SARS was spreading rapidly in Beijing despite repeated government claims it was under control. China's international image was suffering under intense criticism for the cover-up.

Powerful predecessor Jiang Zemin (江澤民), 76, hovered in the wings, still heading the military. Jiang's chief protege Zeng Qinghong (曾慶紅), stood poised should Hu, 60, fumble.

Hu and the new leadership responded dramatically late last month. They ended the cover-up, launched a probe into the true state of the epidemic and ordered measures to stem its spread. They fired the health minister and Beijing mayor.

Hu and his ally in the war on SARS, Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), also launched a campaign to laud health-care workers on the SARS front lines.

"Hu has become a hero. If the social and economic costs are not too high, Hu's status would become unshakeable and Jiang could become irrelevant," said a Chinese academic who asked not to be identified.

Hu's battle is not without risk. The probe revealed Beijing was on its way to having the world's highest number of SARS cases. New openness sparked panic in the city and riots in the countryside.

The economic toll mounted as airports, restaurants and hotels emptied, foreign business visits and deals were postponed and the exodus of migrant workers from Beijing slowed construction.

But a marked decline in the number of cases in Beijing -- now reporting about 50 cases a day after weeks of more than 100 -- has eased some of the pressure.

"The SARS crisis is a test for Hu, but also an opportunity to consolidate power," said Kou Chien-wen (寇健文), an expert on Hu at Taiwan's National Chengchi University.

A crisis some analysts said could lead to a political rift has so far amounted to shadow boxing between the new and former leaders.

The powerful Jiang, who relished the limelight as president for a decade and party boss for 13 years, has made only a handful of public appearances in military circles, where he is well entrenched, and in foreign affairs.

On April 20, the state television channel that caters to the 2.5 million-strong People's Liberation Army failed to air the top story -- Hu inspecting Beijing's Academy of Military Medical Sciences as part of an anti-SARS campaign.

Whether the omission was deliberate is unclear, but the message was not lost with the army -- Hu still plays second fiddle to Jiang in the military.

"Jiang is still the big boss. Some in the military still won't accept Hu," Chinese political commentator Yu Jie (余杰) said.

But the rivalry is unlikely to become a political showdown.

"There is a consensus that they are all on the same boat and if a power struggle or infighting sinks it, everybody drowns," said a Chinese editor who asked not to be identified.

Still, Hu has been careful not to offend.

He regularly invokes Jiang's political theory which aims to broaden party membership to include previously shunned private entrepreneurs.

Hu also sacrificed an ally, Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong (孟學農), to force the ouster of Health Minister Zhang Wenkang (張文康), once Jiang's personal doctor, Chinese sources said.

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