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How is SARS Affecting China's Political System? - 2003-05-11

The SARS epidemic has already claimed hundreds of lives in China and continues to infect more victims there. As the Chinese government works to stem the spread of the disease, a debate is emerging over what long-term effect SARS will have on China's future.

In a recent cover story, the Economist magazine launched the first volley in a debate comparing SARS in China to the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union. The article argued that the Soviet government's handling of the Chernobyl disaster hastened that country's reform and opening process, and that the same thing could happen in China, as it fights SARS.

Boston University History Professor Merle Goldman said the comparison is not totally valid because the former Soviet Union had a leader in Mikhail Gorbachev who was willing to reform. "Gorbachev came to power already with the idea of opening up the media, and "glasnost" and "perestroika" and restructuring the government," Ms. Goldman said.

Professor Goldman said it is too early to say whether China's current leaders, President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, can effectively bring SARS under control. But she adds that the two men only took office in March, and cannot be blamed for the Chinese government's initial lack of public disclosure.

"They [the Chinese government] were not open about it in the beginning. But if you remember, in the beginning, the first evidence of this was back in the fall of 2002, in [the southern province of] Guangdong. And who knows if the local government there even sent that information to the central government, so that it became aware of that. At the same time, Jiang Zemin was still president of the country," she said.

Exiled Chinese dissident Xu Wenli said he believes the bulk of the blame lies not with whomever is leader at the time, but with the entire system and the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

"Of course, if you want to assign personal responsibility, you could say it is Jiang Zemin. But in general, it is just the whole CCP because the whole style of the party is to continually control everything and that the whole style of the CCP and the mindset of it is to cover up things like that, and not let them out. And that is what happened with SARS," Mr. Xu said.

Mr. Xu is a Chinese democracy activist, who was kicked out of China last Christmas Eve, while serving a 13-year jail sentence. He said there is some validity to arguments that SARS will lead to greater liberalization in the Chinese media, but he believes Beijing will not loosen other restrictions on Chinese peoples' lives.

"It is impossible for them to cover up SARS in the media. Perhaps in terms of newspapers, and radio and TV, there will be a little bit of opening up. But in terms of all other aspects of society, he [Mr. Xu] does not believe there will be, he believes that they are going to continue to exert their power and control over people's lives in China," a translator said, speaking for Mr. Xu. Mr. Xu said the Chinese government continues to block Internet sites it does not want its people to see, including sites that have SARS-related information. He added that the government also places restrictions on peoples' movement within the country, with things like residence or work permits.

The Chinese dissident compares Beijing's efforts to fight SARS to its campaign against AIDS, which has become a massive epidemic in China. He refers to SARS as an "ugly" disease, saying the Chinese government did not talk about it, because it did not want to admit that the disease exists in China.

"If you do not really deal with it and be honest about it, no matter how, what a terrible connotation the disease may have, if you do not deal with it, then it is going to be a huge problem," Mr. Xu said.

Professor Goldman said she believes the Chinese government's experience with fighting SARS will eventually bring greater openness. But she said the changes will not happen overnight. "They [Chinese people] want change, and they want political change, but they do not want it abruptly. They want a gradual process. Because they believe that, if they do it the way it was done in the former Soviet Union, as they say, it will lead to chaos - 'luan' - as they say, and that is their greatest fear," she said.

Meanwhile, she added that the disease appears to be spreading to the countryside. She said this means the situation in China could get worse before it gets better.