Apr 8, 2003

By Francesco Sisci

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.


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.


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.