Sat, May 24, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Chinese Communist Party makes hay of SARS crisis

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SHANGHAI

As China begins to bring the SARS epidemic under control, the Communist Party is seeking to claim credit for defusing a crisis caused partly by official denial and deceit.

The leading government news media have hailed the fight against SARS as a "baptism" that gave rise to a new sense of unity around the country.

"This smokeless war has been a classroom in which we have felt and forged a national spirit," China Youth Daily said in an editorial this week.

But some scholars and media commentators say SARS did more to expose the weaknesses of China's political culture than its strengths.

They say the panicked reaction of people around the country, the chaotic flight of migrant workers from Beijing and other big cities, and the tendency to rely almost exclusively on the central government to fight SARS exposed the fragility of China's social order.

"This war against SARS has been totally dominated by the government," said Xu Jilin, a history scholar at East China Normal University in Shanghai. "If a society faced with a crisis can only passively depend on government control, this in itself represents a latent crisis."

The frank debate about the government's handling of SARS, unusual in a society that generally discourages open discussion of sensitive topics during an emergency, comes as the anxiety about the disease has begun to ease.

While the daily toll is higher than it has been for several days, officials are increasingly expressing confidence that the worst is over and that the disease can abate in the near future.

The returning sense of normalcy has prompted scholars to present a wide range of assessments in the official news media and popular online discussion forums. While many agree that the government deserves credit for limiting the spread of SARS, even some government-backed media commentators say the effort should not be viewed as a clear-cut victory for the party-led system.

`Habitual behavior'

China Economic Times ran a front-page commentary on Thurs-day emphasizing the errors made by the authorities in combating SARS, including "delaying, hiding and preventing exposure in the press -- habitual behavior under this system."

Referring to the dismissal of the health minister and the mayor of Beijing late last month, the article said, "Only when two senior officials were dismissed was there a turn for the better."

At issue for other critics is the revival of the Communist Party's old-fashioned apparatus of control. Neighborhood committees, work units and village-level governments have been empowered to isolate travelers from SARS-infected areas, enforce quarantines on people suspected of having contact with SARS patients and tutor people on how to wash their hands, dispose of their garbage and otherwise practice good hygiene.

Though such grass-roots party structures have at times been mobilized during periods of political unrest, such activity largely faded into history with the rapid growth of China's market-oriented economy in recent years.

The propaganda machine has also been operating in overdrive. Television news is full of maudlin homages to health-care workers, referred to as "white-coated warriors" and "angels in white." President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) invoked the need for a "people's war" against the disease, a term that refers to the peasant-led uprising that helped the Communists come to power more than 50 years ago.

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