The SARS outbreak in China is now showing signs of spreading from the cities to the countryside. The World Health Organization has sent observers to Hebei and Henan, indicating the severity of this looming crisis.
The SARS epidemic will ultimately be controlled, but its after-effects will vary depending on regional circumstances. In big cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou, where residents generally are better educated and more rational, the psychological impact of the epidemic will be more limited.
Once SARS is transmitted to the countryside, however, the public there will obviously not have the same reaction. Consequently, the possibility of the epidemic giving rise to social unrest will be greatly increased, which will constitute a new crisis. Not long ago, Chinese academic Hu An-gang (胡鞍鋼) wrote an article calling on the government to "take any and all measures" to prevent the SARS epidemic from sparking rural unrest. This shows that such fears are not groundless.
Since the SARS epidemic broke out in China, there have been repeated indications of such unrest. On April 27, 2,000 farmers on the outskirts of Tianjin vandalized a junior high school because of rumors that it was being turning into a quarantine center for SARS patients. On the same day, in Linzhou City in Henan Province, several hundred farmers destroyed a local clinic and attacked a Chinese-medicine hospital. Thirteen people were arrested.
On May 3 and May 4, after plans by the government of Yuhuan County, Zhejiang Province, to use a local dormitory as a quarantine center came to light, local farmers burst into government offices and beat up the officials involved, resulting in many arrests.
On May 8, officials in Chengde City, Hebei, admitted that their area had experienced unrest resulting from quarantine problems. According to reports by the BBC, more than 100 people participated in the disturbance and the police arrested 64.
On May 11, there were once again incidents in Tianjin. Over 300 people blocked the road leading to the planned site of a "SARS hospital."
It is worth noting that along with the development of the SARS epidemic, the problem of social discrimination has emerged with a new face. It has become a breeding ground for social unrest.
In rural China, each region has adopted an "every village for itself" method of combatting SARS. When several million laborers fled from the cities and returned to their hometowns, they faced suspicion, evasion and even hatred. Many places built temporary housing for returning laborers in the fields outside their villages and didn't permit the laborers to enter the villages. Some people were forced to return to the SARS-affected areas.
It remains to be seen what this enormous population will do when prompted by such frustrations, especially after the discrimination they have already suffered in the cities. We can be sure that this kind of repression is a sign of danger.
Once unrest occurs in the villages, it will have an enormous impact on the structure of the communist regime. Foremost among those who will find it difficult to defend their positions are President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶). They must take responsibility for any political fallout. But if the Hu-Wen government breaks up, there will be a strong backlash of public opinion. It is even harder to ima-gine the fallout from such a scenario. It isn't hard to guess that the Communist Party's priority in combatting SARS has already changed from controlling the epidemic in the cities to preventing the epidemic from spreading to the rural villages.