Asia: After SARS; China

Essay by brooklynhui888 November 2004

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China seems to have beaten the virus. Now for the political fallout

WHEN the World Health Organisation's director for the western Pacific, Dr Shigeru Omi, told a news conference in Beijing on June 24th that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, had been brought under control in the city and the capital was again safe for travellers, Chinese journalists broke into applause. It was indeed a moment to celebrate. The clean bill of health lifted a heavy economic burden and suggested that the government, despite its failure to stem the outbreak sooner, had at last done things right.

The Communist Party's main mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said the epidemic had posed a greater threat to China than both the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the widespread flooding of the following year. But the economic impact, though severe in the travel, leisure and catering industries, appears unlikely to result in a big slowdown.

Most analysts expect China to achieve at least 7% growth this year thanks to buoyant exports and foreign investment as well as governmental pump-priming. That would be only a percentage point or so below what the country would probably have achieved without SARS.

But what of the political impact? In recent weeks, a few bolder publications in China have suggested that lessons learnt from the battle against SARS should encourage the country's leaders to initiate profound changes in the way China is run. In last week's edition of an influential fortnightly magazine, Caijing, one of China's best known economists, Wu Jinglian, said that post-SARS China faced a choice. It could seize the opportunity to promote political and social reforms or else let "the inertia of traditional thinking" push China back on to "the old road".

The Communist Party's Propaganda Department, which is responsible for controlling the...