China has put its military on high alert in preparation for large-scale contingency measures -- including the possible closure of Beijing and imposition of martial law -- to tackle the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, according to a Chinese-language Web site.
The Chinese Communist Party's Central Military Commission issued a top-secret directive to military commands throughout the country on April 19, the Boxun News Web site said yesterday. The directive asks military officers to be on alert for emergency measures and strictly follow orders from the military commission.
The report could not be independently confirmed as of press time yesterday.
The directive also asks the military to prepare for possible social unrest and a shutdown of the country's capital. Martial law may also be imposed on some other areas of the country, according to the directive.
It also asked for attention on "Taiwan independence forces," which it says may take advantage of the SARS crisis to "split the motherland." The subversive activities of anti-Chinese forces in the West should also be watched, it said.
The directive also stressed the importance of protecting the military's top brass, whom it called the "precious assets of the party and the armed forces," so as to ensure the stability and effectiveness of the command chain.
Meanwhile, the State Council has authorized local banks to limit or halt cash withdrawal in the case of bank runs triggered by the SARS epidemic, Boxun News said in a separate report yesterday.
The State Council also warned that any bank which fails to follow government orders will be severely punished, the report said.
The government will use any means available -- including police and military forces -- to try to stop bank runs, which could cause China's shaky financial sector to collapse, the report said.
Bank runs are one of the biggest worries of China's financial authorities, given that bad loan ratios are believed to be as high as 75 percent at some local banks.
Panicky residents are already scrambling to hoard goods in some areas of China, causing commodity prices to skyrocket, the report said.
Meanwhile, Beijing's government closed the city's theaters, cinemas, Internet cafes and other public entertainment venues yesterday in an attempt to stop the spread of SARS, as Hong Kong reported another drop in the number of infections for the second day in a row.
Twelve more SARS patients have died in Hong Kong, matching the territory's previous one-day record, but health officials yesterday reported just 16 new infections, the lowest total yet since the government began releasing daily statistics last month.
SARS has killed 317 people worldwide and sickened more than 4,800.
But the head of World Health Organization said yesterday there is still time to arrest the global spread of SARS if affected countries take the appropriate measures such as airport checks and travel warnings.
"I think we still have a window of opportunity.... At the moment, we still have a chance to contain it and to have it go down in the places where outbreaks are already happening and avoid it spreading to new countries," Gro Harlem Brundtland said in an interview on the BBC television program Breakfast with Frost.
Beijing's closures were ordered to "stop possible spread of the SARS virus and ensure public health," the official Xinhua New Agency reported.