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Beijing loses big on SARS gamble
Asia Times Online ^ | Apr 8, 2003 | Francesco Sisci

Posted on 04/07/2003 6:10:08 AM PDT by CathyRyan

BEIJING - As can be easily gleaned from history, wars are certainly terrible, but epidemics can be worse. This has not been the case in China, where large pandemics have been limited because of dissemination of knowledge to the public and good health care. The story was different in Europe, where the Black Death killed an estimated 23 million people, a result far worse than any of the wars of those times.

China in the past months seems to have forgotten history's lesson as it weighed the pros and cons of releasing information about the new disease frightening people worldwide, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

In last Thursday's Washington Post, John Pomfret reported: "Chinese officials have not exhibited any regrets about the way they have dealt with the outbreak. In a closed-door meeting with senior editors early last week, Lei Yulan, a deputy governor of Guangdong province, dismissed the open information policy of other countries and Hong Kong, just over the border.

"'You can see how much trouble the Hong Kong government created for itself after it made everything public,' she said, according to a participant at the meeting. 'They didn't have the ability to control and handle the disease, so what good was it to make everything public? Their tourism and investment are affected. Most of all, their people are in chaos. What a great loss.'"

If the story is true, it explains in black and white the attitude of many cadres toward the disease, and reveals their ignorance of the basic rules of the globalization era, the rules that have fueled China's economic growth in the past decades.

Foreign capital has been pouring into China over the past couple of decades, due in large part to the slow and painstaking public-relations job done by Chinese and foreigners. They have convinced the world that China is dependable, trustworthy and able to produce good returns - returns higher than many other popular investment destinations. China has profited from this image transformation.

Businessmen, cynically put, can tolerate many things in an investment destination - incarceration of dissenters, a repressive political environment, brutal police-state tactics - all things that are frequently conducive to good returns. But investors certainly cannot stand a threat to their own safety, or that of their investments, which SARS poses. Suppression of information on SARS has created an environment in which investors and businessmen who frequently travel to China feel their investments and their lives threatened.

In this highly connected world, suppression of information about a disease such as SARS is impossible because infected people will sooner or later end up in a country with a comparatively freer press, which will start investigating the source of the illness.

This new pneumonia raises the same fears we have experienced with AIDS. It is new, it has no vaccine and it is has killed just under 100 people to date. It spreads rapidly, apparently through sneezing and coughing, although there may be other modes of transmission as well. The lack of reliable information regarding SARS, and the ease of its spread, are disturbingly reminiscent of the Black Death, the disease that still haunts the Western world centuries after its peak.

The apparent Chinese fear of fully disclosing information regarding SARS, which is believed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to have originated in Foshan, Guangdong, and the rapid spread of cases all over the world has seriously undermined Beijing's credibility. The ramifications of this loss of credibility will be great. This will hit the Chinese economy, not only because businessmen will be scared to go to Guangdong, but because there will be a suspicion that if Beijing has the gall to attempt an obviously futile coverup of this nature, it might as well lie on other issues that are more easily concealed. It will take at least several months to recover the credibility that China's official and unofficial PR people required years to build. Investment and trust in China could take a plunge in the next few months. The plunge will be even more severe if the the world experiences an economic recovery that offers other viable investment venues with more open governments.

The gravity of this situation prompted the face-conscious Chinese government to issue an unprecedented open apology to the world last Thursday. "Today, we apologize to everyone," said Li Liming, director of China's Center for Disease Control. "Our medical departments and our mass media suffered poor coordination. We weren't able to muster our forces in helping to provide everyone with scientific publicity and allowing the masses to get hold of this sort of knowledge."

On the political front, for the past two weeks anti-Beijing forces in Taiwan have blamed Chinese authorities for covering up the disease and thus significantly contributing to the spread of SARS. Beijing in effect gave Taipei a free political weapon via its silence regarding SARS' spread.

This gross political miscalculation was certainly affected to an extent by the recent power transition in Beijing. The first cases of SARS were spotted in November, when the party was holding its 16th Congress to select its "Fourth Generation" of upper-echelon leaders. Last month, when the disease was exploding in Hong Kong, the National People's Congress was being held in Beijing, where China's first peaceful transition of power was formalized. In these months the leaders didn't have the time or willingness to consider carefully the importance of all that was occurring regarding the outbreaks of SARS.

The decision should have been easy for Beijing. As soon as WHO asked to be allowed to investigate the disease, it should have been invited in and given full access to affected areas, Guangdong in particular. It also should have been allowed to speak freely to the world (and Chinese) press regarding SARS. This would have undoubtedly buttressed China's previously growing credibility as a responsible member of the global community.

But China's domestic rules regarding epidemics say that information can be publicly released only after prior authorization from above. And the leaders were too focused on their political chores to worry about WHO's request to investigate an illness in Guangdong, which is far from Beijing. For sensitive issues such as a potential epidemic, image-conscious Chinese leaders need consensus. The Chinese political system has virtually no provisions for health officials to speak out without being censored by the state-run press or receiving direct punishment from Beijing. If an official chooses to speak out as an individual on a delicate matter like SARS, one usually kills their political career and risks imprisonment. In fact even if the decision proves right, one's political enemies could attack the official for betraying party unity, which is viewed in Beijing as the crux of national stability.

Therefore SARS has illuminated, for all the world to see, a major flaw in the Chinese political system. That system still awaits the massive overhaul that the economy has received. The main culprit in China's SARS blunder is the lack of political reform, which should have accompanied China's rapid economic transformation. China's economy might well not survive a second epidemic. If its economy collapses, the political system will likely follow.

TOPICS: News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: china; sars

1 posted on 04/07/2003 6:10:08 AM PDT by CathyRyan
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To: CathyRyan
One of this author's points seems to be that China should have a more open totalitarian government. Brilliant.
2 posted on 04/07/2003 6:20:50 AM PDT by sam_paine
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To: CathyRyan
China in the past months seems to have forgotten history's lesson as it weighed the pros and cons of releasing information about the new disease frightening people worldwide, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

I have been wondering for days now if this is an escaped biologically made virus, that the chinese were trying to make for use in a war.

3 posted on 04/07/2003 6:24:34 AM PDT by MsLady
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To: CathyRyan
Their flawed political system's failure has life-or-death consequences for the rest of the world. No apology can be good enough. In attempting to save face, they have lost even more...and unleashed SARS on the world, in an attempt to keep it secret.
4 posted on 04/07/2003 6:25:28 AM PDT by Judith Anne (God bless our soldiers with swift victory...)
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To: CathyRyan
With all due contempt for the Chinese, exactly when is an epidemic an epidemic? Containment has not worked for SARS, so what could the Chinese have done differently to change the course of SARS spread? Somehow, I think China is given too much credit here.
5 posted on 04/07/2003 6:28:30 AM PDT by Nebullis
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To: CathyRyan
They didn't have the ability to control and handle the disease, so what good was it to make everything public?
And that's the viewpoint of a totalitarian government. People are the problem that needs to be managed.

We weren't able to muster our forces in helping to provide everyone with scientific publicity and allowing the masses to get hold of this sort of knowledge
On the contrary, you were able to muster your forces and supress the story. This is success in your eyes.
6 posted on 04/07/2003 6:30:44 AM PDT by lelio
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To: CathyRyan
I seem to remember the Black Death killing 1/3 of China's population, as well.

This idea that China has suffered less because of more open information and better medical care certainly wasn't true 600 years ago. I question whether it's ever been true.

7 posted on 04/07/2003 6:33:57 AM PDT by jdege
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To: Nebullis
I have to agree. And in November, the illness wasn't even understood; except that a few people had died from an anti-biotic resistant pnemonia-like illness.
8 posted on 04/07/2003 6:34:29 AM PDT by Hodar (With Rights, comes Responsibilities. Don't assume one, without assuming the other.)
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To: sam_paine
Holy mackerel! If they don't know exactly how it is transmitted that sure makes purchasing "made in China" have new (and more dangerous)meaning.
9 posted on 04/07/2003 6:37:21 AM PDT by pointsal
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To: CathyRyan
Most of all, their people [Hong Kong] are in chaos.
Ah, we get to the crux of the issue: the state is no longer controlling everyone's emotions or thoughts. Its okay if they're keeling over from some unknown disease, but if they dare question that their Masters don't have the faintest idea what they are doing, well then you have some trouble.
One can draw a parallel between China's handling of SARS and their complaints of other countries to ABC/NBC/CBS complaining about FOX/Drudge/FR reporting. It isn't what they are reporting isn't true, its just that it isn't coming from Them.
10 posted on 04/07/2003 6:39:20 AM PDT by lelio
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To: CathyRyan
There is no such thing as suffering and disease in the Peoples' Paradise.

The dedicated and heroic barefoot doctors are a great success story of public health.

The wise and benevolent leaders will protect the people from any concievable harm.

It is better for the individual to rely on the Party than it is for him to protect himself.

If the news of an epidemic can be supressed, there has been no epidemic, no matter how many lives have been lost.
11 posted on 04/07/2003 6:45:23 AM PDT by gridlock (Whizzo Chocolate Co. regrets to announce that Crunchy Frog will be unavailable until further notice.)
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To: CathyRyan
If there is no biowarfare connection, the Chinese conduct is all about saving face.
12 posted on 04/07/2003 7:06:31 AM PDT by Pearls Before Swine
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To: MsLady
Certain medical experts posted in earlier FREEP here that SARS is not deadly enough to be a weapon----its fatality rate is only 3-4%
ANTRAX and the bubonic plague are anytime better bio-weapons
13 posted on 04/07/2003 7:13:37 AM PDT by The Pheonix
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Comment #14 Removed by Moderator

To: The Pheonix
"ANTRAX and the bubonic plague are anytime better bio-weapons"

Didn't the government privatize ANTRAX many years ago?

Or is ANTRAX something you call the Orkin man about?


15 posted on 04/07/2003 7:38:29 AM PDT by boris (Education is always painful; pain is always educational)
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To: gridlock
"It is not typhus. It's another disease we don't have in Moscow. Starvation."

"Your attitude has been noticed, you know. It has been noticed!"

-- Dr. Zhivago
16 posted on 04/07/2003 7:50:05 AM PDT by homeagain balkansvet
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To: CathyRyan
At least 15 die of atypical pneumonia in Beijing:


At least 15 people have died in Beijing from atypical pneumonia, the German magazine Stern reported overnight (HK time), challenging the official figure of four reported in the Chinese capital.

Ten of the victims had died in military hospital 302, and a further 40 were hospitalised there with the ailment, Stern said on its website, quoting hospital doctors and nurses.

At least three patients and a doctor and nurse had died at another hospital in the centre of town, it reported.

These figures contrast with the numbers given by Beijing city officials of four dead and 15 hospitalised with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

The death in Beijing of a Finnish International Labour Organisation (ILO) official, Pekka Aro, 53, was announced at a Chinese health ministry press conference in the capital.

A Canadian is among those hospitalised in Beijing.

At least 51 deaths from Sars have been reported in the mainland and 1,247 people have been infected, according to official figures released overnight.

The mainland's new prime minister Wen Jiabao said his government was fully capable of controlling the epidemic.

''The Chinese government is fully capable of controlling the spread of Sars,'' said Mr Wen during an inspection tour of a centre for disease control.

Sars, first detected last November in China's Guangdong province where it still appears to be concentrated, has since reached Beijing, Shanghai, Guangxi province in the south, Hunan province in the centre-south - where one death has been recorded - Sichuan in the southwest, and Shanxi in the north.

It has spread to Hong Kong and from there around the world, mostly due to airline passengers.

17 posted on 04/07/2003 12:47:30 PM PDT by CathyRyan
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To: CathyRyan; Mother Abigail; Dog Gone; Petronski; per loin; Jim Noble; flutters; InShanghai
Proven lies about Chernobyl were one of the most important steps to the discrediting of the Soviet system.
18 posted on 04/07/2003 2:23:30 PM PDT by aristeides
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To: CathyRyan

They lost the bet all right, but they were gambling with other peoples lives. Never trust a communist to do anything to preserve human life. Sheesh.

19 posted on 04/07/2003 2:26:46 PM PDT by Petronski (I'm not always cranky.)
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