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Top Chinese Officials Lose Party Posts Over Mishandling of SARS - 2003-04-20

China's health minister and the mayor of Beijing have been removed from key Communist Party posts following criticism about the way China has handled the SARS public health crisis. Officials also are trying to stop a flood of travelers during a national holiday to stem the spread of the infection.

China's official news agency, Xinhua, reports Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong were removed from powerful Communist Party posts Sunday. Analysts say loss of the party posts amounts to firing, because the party controls the government.

The Xinhua report gave no reason for the action, but it follows severe international criticism of Chinese officials for hiding most of the cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in Beijing.

Officials earlier insisted there were only a few dozen SARS cases here in the capital, but on Sunday admitted there were 346, including 18 deaths.

That brings the total number of SARS cases on mainland China to more than 1,800, with 79 deaths. Hong Kong officials reported seven new deaths Sunday, bringing the toll there to 88 out of almost 1,400 infections.

China's executive vice health minister, Gao Qiang, said the government is taking drastic action in hopes of slowing the spread of SARS. He said the week-long May Day holiday will be sharply cut back this year to discourage people from traveling over the holiday period.

In China, many workers with city jobs return to distant rural homes over the May Day holidays, while affluent city residents take sightseeing trips. Officials fear the travelers could take SARS with them to rural areas.

This year, workers will receive only two days off to mark international Labor Day.

Earlier, the Education Ministry warned students against traveling over the holiday. That action came after SARS cases were reported on some campuses in Beijing.

Travelers are believed to be the cause of the spread of the SARS virus to more than 20 countries around the world in a few months. The virus causes severe flu-like symptoms and a potentially deadly form of pneumonia.

Mr. Gao said, so far, SARS has not been detected in farm areas. But he said poverty and scarce rural medical resources mean the consequences of such an outbreak would be "especially grim."

SARS was first observed last November in southern China and has since infected more than 3,500 people around the world, killing more than 180.