China: SARS and the Politics of Silence

SARS Is Making a Change

 When Zhang Wenkang and Meng Xuenong stepped down from their posts as, respectively, minister of health and mayor of Beijing in late April, they made history. They became the first high-ranking officials in the People’s Republic of China ousted not for crimes such as bribery or embezzlement but for “negligence of duty.”

This is one of the first drastic changes that SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—has brought to China’s politics. The dumping of these two officials, regarded as guilty of holding back information relating to the spread of the epidemic, is expected to change China’s old bureaucratic mentality. Before, many government officials would cover up anything deemed “negative,” whether it was news about the collapse of a coal mine or a case of massive food poisoning.

Although information blockades worked in some earlier crises that had only local effects, they did not work this time. The flu-like epidemic swept over 20 Chinese provinces despite claims by Zhang and Meng that it had been “brought under effective control.” The disease made it obvious that an information cover-up could risk people’s lives and the government’s credibility. 

Never before has the Chinese public felt the need for transparent government so keenly. In mid-April, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the highest leadership of China’s ruling party, ordered that information on the spread of SARS be given freely and warned that officials found holding back or distorting information would be severely punished.

Today, things have changed. Since April 21, the Ministry of Health has released SARS-related statistics—data once held secret—daily. The municipal government of Beijing has begun to give televised press briefings to Chinese and foreign media twice a week, providing detailed information on SARS in the Chinese capital. Amid this new wave of openness, China stunned the world by announcing a submarine accident in early May.

Meanwhile, a number of local officials have been sacked because of their failure to perform their duties in the war against SARS. Hu Jintao, China’s new president and party chief, who had held the presidency for barely a month when the decision to sack the two senior officials was made, and Wen Jiabao, who has been China’s premier only since mid-March, did not expect that they would be tested so severely and so soon. But their decisions to visit SARS-hit communities, hospitals, and campuses, their cordiality and openness with ordinary people in defiance of SARS, and their determination to redress the defects in the system and beat the disease have boosted people’s confidence and re-established their trust in the government.

Behind this new openness, it is clear that a more profound change of priorities is taking root in China. SARS has shattered the philosophy among some bureaucrats that silence on negative topics might sustain their power. Now they have been forced to see that they may lose their authority if they fail to give priority to people’s well-being.

Perhaps these new measures still do not go as far as the Chinese people would like. But in the absence of any institutionalized requirement on the free flow of information or effective public supervision over government work, the Internet is playing an active and positive role. Many netizens are flooding Web sites with messages praising Hu and Wen for their care for the people in such a crisis and criticizing other officials for shunning their responsibilities in the war against SARS.

During his inspection tour of Guangzhou in April, when the southern Chinese city was still in the grip of SARS, Hu Jintao told a doctor that he had read his proposal on the Web on how to contain the epidemic. This indicates that the new generation of Chinese leaders is adopting a new style—to get closer to the people through all kinds of channels. 

In fact, China’s new leaders have consistently beseeched the country’s officials to get closer to the people. In what Hu terms a “people’s war” against SARS, people are sure to be better informed, have a larger say, and play a bigger role.