Sun, Jan 11, 2004 - Page 5 News List

China opens up on SARS crisis

DIFFERENT MESSAGE Last year China kept news about SARS secret, but this time around the country's leaders are making frequent swift and informative statements


Last year, when what would become SARS first appeared, you couldn't pry information loose from China's secretive government. Now, as the virus edges back into the spotlight, the country's leadership has a different message: Operators are standing by.

A Health Ministry hotline that opened this week is one extraordinary indication of a usually unresponsive government's starkly different public approach as it marshals forces for Round Two of the fight against SARS.

This time, the government has worked hard to appear swift and decisive -- and make frequent statements that sound open and informative.

The response reflects an evolution in the way China, long accustomed to burying bad news, is dealing with the press and the public -- a change quite probably driven by the blistering overseas reaction to the way it handled things last time.

"During the first SARS outbreak last year, the lesson was quite grave. During that struggle, we improved our system and structures," Kong Quan, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, said Thursday.

Few things are more important to the Chinese government than maintaining a good reputation abroad. Anything less threatens foreign investment, tourism dollars and the country's deep hunger for international respect.

For weeks last year, leaders simply denied the problem, accusing the international media of alarmism and suppressing reports in the state-controlled press. One official bristled at questions about what would be christened SARS, saying: "You can see that atypical pneumonia is not a very serious disease."

Only in late April, after one American newspaper called for a quarantine on China and rumors about the disease were reaching a crescendo, did China fire its health minister and promise a new openness and aggressiveness. But the damage was done.

Some officials now acknowledge privately that the government's first response to SARS last year was wanting -- an unusual admission for members of a leadership that rarely admits missteps. And those speaking publicly say it too, although less directly.

"The government's reaction to SARS this time is much better than the last time. It has made real progress in its crisis management," said Wu Aiming, a professor of public administration at People's University in Beijing.

In the latest anti-SARS effort, authorities in the southern province of Guangdong threatened fines of up to US$12,000 for merchants who try to hide civet cats ahead of yesterday's deadline to slaughter thousands of the animals. Many believe civets are responsible for the virus' jump to humans, although that remains unproven.

The World Health Organization suggested further tests and requested more information about the outbreak's second suspected case, a 20-year-old waitress in Guangdong.

The government's new openness isn't limited to SARS, although it may have been the impetus. The new leadership under President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) has promised at various junctures to conduct its business more openly and protect public safety more aggressively.

The government has been unusually swift in investigating a lethal gas explosion last month and assigning blame. New regulations unveiled this month promise monthly news conferences by national and local security bureaus "to promote transparency of police affairs."

And earlier this week, the State Council, China's Cabinet, announced plans to increase the number of government spokesmen and "ease news flow."

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