Wed, May 14, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Outbreak jars Beijing's political system

CHINA SYNDROME The epidemic has exposed with embarrassing clarity the costs of the Communist Party's tight political control over information and bureaucracy

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BEIJING

A replica of a terracotta warrior is decorated with a mask at a tea house in Nanjing to remind customers of the importance of wearing masks in the fight against SARS.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Only a few months ago, in what already feels like a different era, China's leaders were riding high. No one, neither critics nor partisans of the Communist Party, imagined that a viral disease was about to cause the equivalent of a national train wreck.

The party was transferring supreme power to a younger generation in the most orderly way ever. In its blooming relations with the US and other great powers and in its successful effort to be selected as the host for the 2008 Olympics, China was gaining the global respect it always craved.

After more than two decades of relative stability and speedy growth, the country had joined the World Trade Organization. If problems of inequality and unemployment still nagged, the first quarter of 2003 was enjoying a renewed burst of rapid growth.

Now, in just a few torturous weeks, the country's politics and international relations have changed hues. The SARS epidemic and its obvious mishandling have badly humbled China's leaders at home and abroad, and jolted the society in many ways, a range of intellectuals and party officials said.

"SARS has been our country's 9/11," Xu Zhiyuan, a columnist for the Economic Observer, a newsweekly, said in an interview. "It has forced us to pay attention to the real meaning of globalization."

"China's future seemed so dazzling," he said, and that "lulled people into thinking our country was immune from the shocks of history." A recent column he wrote about the subject was called Farewell to a Vacation From History.

Just where the unleashed demons will lead is uncertain. But one casualty, welcomed by some scholars, may be the smug complacency many Chinese had developed about the country's political system and future.

"I think this disaster will make China's leaders more modest," said Xiao Gongqin, a historian at Shanghai Normal University.

"Everything seemed to be going so smoothly, and that allowed us to neglect our systemic shortcomings," he said in an interview. "This crisis is forcing everyone to reflect on those shortcomings, and it will sharpen people's critical sense."

Not only is SARS a serious threat to lives, but the epidemic has also exposed with embarrassing clarity -- to the Chinese people and to the world -- the costs of China's tight political control over information and bureaucracy.

It has thrown an equally embarrassing spotlight on the backward and disorganized state of medical care, especially in the countryside, where a majority of China's people live.

Anger overseas about the months of dissembling about the extent of SARS, which almost certainly abetted the global spread of the disease, has put Chinese leaders and diplomats on the defensive.

In China, as the virus becomes more entrenched, serious economic damages are looming and Chinese travelers are in danger of becoming international pariahs.

Since the government's remarkable admission of grave mistakes on April 20, accompanied by the firing of two relatively senior officials among the many who must have known about the SARS cover-up, the top leaders have gamely worked to make up for lost time.

Hu Jintao, the president and party chief, and Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, have moved visibly around the country and filled the airwaves with exhortations to defeat the epidemic, and they appear to be winning back some public faith in the process.

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