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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

SARS – unveiling the state of health of the Chinese political regime

Jean-Philippe Béja

Texte intégral

1July 2003

2The recent, but brief explosion of atypical pneumonia (bizarrely named “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome”) has revealed that our world, despite its pretence of being modern and rational, has not yet come to terms with the great fears characteristic of a “medieval mentality”. For several months, people in Asia would avoid going near those who sneezed in public. These irrational behaviours tell us much about our society.

3Like any given crisis, the recent epidemic has cast a new light upon China’s political regime, where the disease originated. At the end of the Communist Party’s 16th Congress, whilst audience members congratulated themselves on the way in which the succession had been handled since a new generation of more modern rulers had come to power, the epidemic of SARS came and shattered the picture.

4Firstly, the crisis showed that the Communist Party still continued to exercise control over the media. Thus, in November 2002, when an unknown disease appeared in Guangdong, certain newspapers renowned for their audacity, reported the story. However, a few days after, a law from the party’s Provincial Committee for the Department of Propaganda prohibited them from talking about the subject. And then, the silence was broken; proof that the media has a narrow margin for being manoeuvred. When in February 2003, Nanfang Zhoumo from Canton published an article on the epidemic, the authorities reacted even more aggressively; no negative information was to tarnish the meeting of the two big assemblies. The very assemblies that would form the new government and make Hu Jintao, the party’s new Secretary-General, the President of the Republic. The newspaper was consequently punished, and the head of propaganda from the party’s Provincial Committee replaced its director.

5The epidemic also revealed that maintaining the secret remained at the centre of the Communist Party’s governing methods. When the disease broke out, the initial reaction of the authorities was to cover up the crisis to avoid generating trouble. Inside the country, its citizens panicked. Meanwhile from the outside, the People’s Republic, which was just finding its feet on the international scene, deservedly suffered a loss of pride.

6The crisis also revealed the extent of localism, which has always existed in China, despite the population control system with its residence permits (Hukou), originally put in place by the Communist Party in the fifties, being reinforced strongly. Once the authorities announced that the city of Beijing was affected badly by the virus, those living nearby to Beijing left their homes, and with the support of the local authorities, increased the number of roadblocks prohibiting city dwellers from reaching them. China immediately turned into a multitude of small, closed-off communities. Again, the crisis only served to reveal a flaw within the regime that had always been there.

7The management of the epidemic showed that faction struggles continued to characterise the way in which the regime worked, according to rumours circulating amongst Beijing’s political scientists. While the people close to Jiang Zemin, the former Secretary General, made the choice to hide the severity of the event, the newcomers Hu Jintao and Wen Jaibao decided to be transparent in order to reinforce legitimacy and to present an image of modernity to both China and the rest of the world. Similarly, the dismissing of the mayor of Beijing, who was close to Hu, the Minister of Health, and to Jiang, was not so much to appear responsible in the eyes of the public, but the result of faction struggles.

8Another element has come to show that the regime has barely changed; once the trend, in favour of “transparency”, was adopted, it was through a political campaign against SARS led by the party, that the government launched into combat by mobilising all the instruments of control, which it had (neighbourhood committees, work units, etc.). The last campaign of this type (which is still currently on-going) was that which Jiang Zemin had launched in 1999 against the followers of the Falungong sect. The authorities allowed the media to have more freedom to cover the events, but since the end of the alert, they have started to take control of the situation again.

9Lastly, SARS has shown that the Chinese health system has reached crisis point, and that 25 years of reform have practically destroyed all the institutions founded upon social insurance and gratuity. Urban hospitals and rural clinics only admit patients if they can afford to pay 3,000 yuan, which represents more than the annual income for certain farmers. Under these conditions, farmers and workers who do not have social insurance prefer to take care of themselves on their own (which partly explains the success of qigong groups such as the Falungong). When talking about an epidemic, this piece of information is rather worrying.

10The crisis has, however, also revealed a number of positive traits and encouraging changes facilitated by globalisation.

11Firstly, it has highlighted the importance of Hong Kong. Although the former colony suffered numerous clashes with Beijing since 1997, it has fundamentally conserved its social system. It is thanks to doctors from Hong Kong who operate within a system that closely resembles the British one, that the world and most notably the WHO became aware of the severity of the disease. Without them, it would have taken a long time before the appropriate measures would have been put in place, and for China to admit that SARS was present in its territory. Although the People’s Republic might be more open than it used to be, Hong Kong still plays a role in revealing the reality in China. The transparency practised by the Special Administrative Region has nonetheless brought nothing, but trouble for Hong Kong, as the WHO placed a ban to stop people from entering the country. This deeply affected its economy, which is based upon exchanges and services.

12There is, however, a final encouraging element. The SARS crisis showed the increasing resilience of Chinese society. Previously, the AIDS crisis had been unveiled by Chinese investigators, journalists and doctors who had gone to Henan, the province most heavily affected. Today, it is Jian Yanyong, a military doctor from a hospital in Beijing who is criticising the scandal, regardless of the risk to his personal safety in doing so. The scandal is of course the authorities’ dismissal of the extent to which the SARS epidemic had gripped Beijing.

13The existence of brave personalities who dare to stand up to the authorities is not something new. It has happened before, throughout the course of the history of the People’s Republic. What is new is that once they contact the international press or members of humanitarian organisations present in China, to criticise the problems caused by the authorities, which affect the entire world, their voice can be heard publicly and the government hesitates to repress them. This is a collateral effect of globalisation that can, under certain circumstances, promote the emergence or even the institutionalisation of a civil society in China. This phenomenon, despite only being applied in crises that affect the whole world, is still somewhat important.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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