by Austin Bay
April 30, 2003
The bug has kicked Asia's biggest tiger in the teeth.
The bug is SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and thetiger is the Peoples Republic of China.
The sorry fact behind the SARS epidemic is that Beijing chosesaving face over saving lives. The medical and economic consequences of thatterrible decision are already evident. The strategic political repercussionsfor China and Asia may be huge.
Plagues have no politics. Politically suppressing the news of anoutbreak doesn't cure the illness. Barring miracle remission on acontinental scale, only aggressive, coordinated medical relief, publichealth programs and public information campaigns squelch epidemics.
According to the best guesses, SARS appeared in China's southernGuangdong 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 forauthoritarian regimes of any stripe, that's business as usual.
North Korea denies its perpetual famine. Castro's Cuba stilltouts its free public medical system, though for everyone but the politicalelite that system lacks aspirin and bandages.
Dictators who have reason to doubt their own politicallegitimacy believe bad news makes them look weak. But truly bad news won'tsubmit to totalitarian silence. In 1986, Soviet leaders denied the extent ofthe nuclear reactor disaster at Chernobyl, until windblown radioactive dustactivated Geiger counters elsewhere in Europe. Germans and Swedes didn'tlike fallout in their milk.
Pathogens also leap borders, and they do so rapidly on our747-connected planet.
The SARS epidemic demonstrates Beijing's strategic bind. Chinahas opened its economy to global trade, and the payoff in economic growth isreal. But "political openness" in mainland China has been a very iffyprocess.
The super-flu is bad enough, but the lies, denial andmisrepresentations surrounding the SARS outbreak magnified Beijing'sproblems.
-- The Chinese economy has been quarantined. J.P. Morgan Chaseestimated China's economy grew 9.9 percent in the first quarter of 2003. Thetrend-line for the second quarter is China's economy will shrink by 2percent. Beijing's "capitalist Communists" justify continuing authoritarianpolitical control because the economy produces. SARS demonstratesauthoritarian policies exact a huge economic price.
-- Beijing's domestic credibility has suffered, and not simplybecause of the economic tailspin. It's often tough to gauge the politicalblowback in an authoritarian society that results from "lying aboutsomething really important" because the autocrats control the informationflow. The fear generated by this epidemic, however, has overwhelmed thecontrol system. Gossip is now propelled by paranoia undeterred by jail.
Chinese peasants, technocrats, and even the bureaucrats knowgovernment lies don't stop infections. Senior health officials in Beijinghave been sacked. This past Tuesday, 2,000 people in the village ofChagugang (near Beijing) burned a school building the government designateda SARS quarantine center. That's not a democracy's Not In My Backyarddemonstration, 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 thescenes, Japan has been displeased with China's failure to help police NorthKorea's nuclear zanies; the failure to share vital international medicaldata adds to the perception that Beijing cannot be trusted to act as aresponsible power.
China, as part of its "one China" strategy, has successfullyexcluded Taiwan from the World Health Organization (WHO). The Taiwanese havepleaded for observer status, arguing international health issues overridepolitical competition. Beijing's mishandling of SARS makes Taiwan's case. Weall 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. Thatmeans a full and open accounting of the medical facts and the politicalfailures.