Monday, April 21, 2003; Page A01

BEIJING, April 20 -- In the most significant political shake-up in more than a decade, the mayor of Beijing and the minister of health were removed from their Communist Party posts today for failing to deal with the spread of SARS in China.

Health officials also conceded they had mismanaged the outbreak, an unprecedented admission by the Communist Party. The government increased the number of confirmed SARS cases in the capital from 37 to 346, a tacit acknowledgement that it had previously lied about the toll. The government also canceled the annual one-week vacation that begins May 1. The Ministry of Education, meanwhile, effectively confined hundreds of thousands of students in the capital to their campuses to limit the infection rate.

The moves constituted a political earthquake for the Communist Party, which has rarely acknowledged making mistakes during its 54-year rule. From the start, Chinese sources said, the new government of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who formally took power in March, approved the coverup. But a combination of intense international pressure and the influence of the information revolution on China made the government look so out of touch that bold action was demanded, the sources said. While the government withheld information about the virus, many Chinese traded news on cell phones in text messages.

The ramifications for the way the Communist Party rules China will be huge, Chinese analysts and politicians said. Hu and Wen, who came to power in March vowing to take responsibility for problems, appear to have set a new precedent for how to rule China by firing two senior officials for organizing a coverup.

"This is the beginning of the end," said a senior official who has lobbied behind the scenes for greater democracy. "This is the spark many of us have been waiting for."

"Our government is marching toward the right direction," said Jiang Yanyong, the former head of the military's No. 301 hospital who, in a rare feat of whistle-blowing, accused the government of a coverup two weeks ago.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome is believed to have originated in China in November. China has been criticized for failing to take steps against the disease, not warning other countries about it and covering up the extent of its spread. The U.S. secretary of health and human services, Tommy G. Thompson, has said China's failures have cost lives. Worldwide, SARS has killed at least 203 people and infected more than 3,800. Today, China acknowledged a substantial increase in infected patients, to 1,807 cases and 79 deaths.

In two one-sentence dispatches, the official New China News Agency reported that the mayor of Beijing, Meng Xuenong, and the minister of health, Zhang Wenkang, had been ousted from their party posts, the first step in their dismissal from their government jobs. Not since the Tiananmen Square crackdown have such high-ranking officials been removed for disloyalty. The reports said Wang Qishan, party secretary in Hainan province, would replace Meng, and Gao Qiang, the deputy minister of health, would replace Zhang.

Zhang was widely accused of lying about the extent of the disease in Beijing during an April 4 news conference in which he claimed that the epidemic in the capital had been "effectively controlled." He hung onto his job, Chinese sources said, because he was counting on his close relationship with China's former president, Jiang Zemin, to save him. Meng, who is new to the mayor's job, is believed to have been sacrificed because other leaders, such as Beijing Communist Party secretary Liu Qi, a member of the powerful Politburo, were too influential to fall.

On the streets of the capital, people said they were surprised by the shake-up.

"This is great!" said Li Chen, 33, a designer who said his uncle, a doctor, has the virus. "I never thought those bastards would go. I hope more of them step down because of this."

Asked, however, if the government's action would help restore the public's trust, which has been eroded by the government's handling of the disease, Li shook his head. "They are only going to be as open as they have to," he said. "You can't teach old dogs new tricks."

Health Minister Zhang and Beijing Mayor Meng were expected to appear at a news conference today, but neither showed up. Instead the duty fell to Gao, an owlish bureaucrat with a wry sense of humor.

For a week, Beijing authorities had insisted that only 37 people in the capital had SARS and that only four people had died from it. Chinese doctors, however, had reported hundreds of cases. Sources at two hospitals said authorities had ordered them to hide cases from a team from the World Health Organization, even bundling 30 patients into ambulances while the experts visited one hospital.

Gao said an investigation ordered by top leaders on Tuesday had revealed 346 confirmed cases, including seven new discoveries today, 18 deaths and 402 suspected cases of SARS in Beijing -- vastly higher than previous reports. He said "several hundred" officials had fanned out and visited all 700 hospitals in Beijing, in some instances discovering new cases.

"The Ministry of Health was not adequately prepared for a crisis in public health; its system of prevention was weak," Gao said. "After SARS appeared, the ministry's demands were unclear and its leadership was ineffective."

Gao said the ministry's work in tracing SARS cases and gathering correct figures was "incomplete." Various ministries control hospitals in Beijing, he said, and the hospitals do not communicate with one another and resources are not shared. As a result, he said, even with the new Beijing numbers, "the statistics in Beijing are not completely correct."

Gao said the government was encouraging people to cancel travel plans associated with the May Day holiday. Last year, 87 million people traveled around China during that time, spending billions of dollars. Until a few days ago, the government had been encouraging travel as a way to prove that the country was safe for tourism.

Gao also said the government had ordered each province and municipality to submit daily reports on the SARS situation, and supervisory teams from the central government have been dispatched to Guangdong province, Beijing and Inner Mongolia to ensure that the numbers are accurate. Teams will soon be working in Shanxi and Ningxia, two poor provinces where the disease is believed to be spreading rapidly, he said.

Gao acknowledged that some hospitals had been turning away SARS patients because they were too sick or too poor. He said the government had issued new rules on how to deal with suspected cases and warned hospitals that failed to treat patients or help them find treatment.

Despite the new openness, the work ahead for the central government will be arduous. There have been persistent reports that the disease has killed far more than the 18 people in Beijing that the government had acknowledged. And, perhaps more worrying for China, there have been reports that SARS has spread much farther into the interior than local governments concede. Local doctors have reported cases and fatalities in Yunnan and Liaoning provinces, for example, although provincial authorities deny any cases.

Gao said he was worried about SARS spreading into rural areas, where the medical system is deteriorating and farmers lack awareness of the disease.

"Once the disaster spreads to these areas," he said, "the consequences will be especially grave."