by Austin Bay
April 30, 2003
The bug is SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and the
tiger is the Peoples Republic of China.
The sorry fact behind the SARS epidemic is that Beijing chose
saving face over saving lives. The medical and economic consequences of that
terrible decision are already evident. The strategic political repercussions
for China and Asia may be huge.
Plagues have no politics. Politically suppressing the news of an
outbreak doesn't cure the illness. Barring miracle remission on a
continental scale, only aggressive, coordinated medical relief, public
health programs and public information campaigns squelch epidemics.
According to the best guesses, SARS appeared in China's southern
Guangdong province in October or November 2002.
Chinese officials -- exactly who they are we don't know --
weren't honest with their own people. That's not a new condition for
authoritarian regimes of any stripe, that's business as usual.
North Korea denies its perpetual famine. Castro's Cuba still
touts its free public medical system, though for everyone but the political
elite that system lacks aspirin and bandages.
Dictators who have reason to doubt their own political
legitimacy believe bad news makes them look weak. But truly bad news won't
submit to totalitarian silence. In 1986, Soviet leaders denied the extent of
the nuclear reactor disaster at Chernobyl, until windblown radioactive dust
activated Geiger counters elsewhere in Europe. Germans and Swedes didn't
like fallout in their milk.
Pathogens also leap borders, and they do so rapidly on our
The SARS epidemic demonstrates Beijing's strategic bind. China
has opened its economy to global trade, and the payoff in economic growth is
real. But "political openness" in mainland China has been a very iffy
The super-flu is bad enough, but the lies, denial and
misrepresentations surrounding the SARS outbreak magnified Beijing's
-- The Chinese economy has been quarantined. J.P. Morgan Chase
estimated China's economy grew 9.9 percent in the first quarter of 2003. The
trend-line for the second quarter is China's economy will shrink by 2
percent. Beijing's "capitalist Communists" justify continuing authoritarian
political control because the economy produces. SARS demonstrates
authoritarian policies exact a huge economic price.
-- Beijing's domestic credibility has suffered, and not simply
because of the economic tailspin. It's often tough to gauge the political
blowback in an authoritarian society that results from "lying about
something really important" because the autocrats control the information
flow. The fear generated by this epidemic, however, has overwhelmed the
control system. Gossip is now propelled by paranoia undeterred by jail.
Chinese peasants, technocrats, and even the bureaucrats know
government lies don't stop infections. Senior health officials in Beijing
have been sacked. This past Tuesday, 2,000 people in the village of
Chagugang (near Beijing) burned a school building the government designated
a SARS quarantine center. That's not a democracy's Not In My Backyard
demonstration, that's a rebellion.
-- SARS has dealt Beijing an international relations disaster.
Militarily-potent China is already viewed with distrust throughout Asia.
Business, however, is business, until business travel leads to mass death.
Beijing has failed to act as a responsible regional leader. Behind the
scenes, Japan has been displeased with China's failure to help police North
Korea's nuclear zanies; the failure to share vital international medical
data adds to the perception that Beijing cannot be trusted to act as a
China, as part of its "one China" strategy, has successfully
excluded Taiwan from the World Health Organization (WHO). The Taiwanese have
pleaded for observer status, arguing international health issues override
political competition. Beijing's mishandling of SARS makes Taiwan's case. We
all share the same disease pool, and political exclusion from WHO must stop.
WHO now says SARS outbreaks have peaked in Canada, Singapore,
Hong Kong and Vietnam, but not in China. China needs the world's help. That
means a full and open accounting of the medical facts and the political