On Point

Bug Kicks Tiger

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 747-connected planet.

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 process.

The super-flu is bad enough, but the lies, denial and misrepresentations surrounding the SARS outbreak magnified Beijing's problems.

-- 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 responsible power.

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 failures.

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