2003 April 30 Wednesday
Chinese Leaders May Use SARS Crisis To Consolidate Power

CNN Senior China Analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam argues that recently ascended President Hu Jintao and his allies may use the SARS crisis to consolidate their hold on power.

After all, it is almost a reflex action for an experienced CCP leader to convert a nationwide battle against major calamities into a propaganda exercise to drum up support for himself. The most recent instance of this was the horrendous floods of 1998, when then president Jiang obliged pretty much all regional and military cadres to pledge their utmost to fight the deluge -- and to support the "party center with comrade Jiang Zemin as its core."

It is instructive to contrast Lam's take on the SARS crisis with that of many Western commentators. Many commentators are drawing parallels with the effects that the handling of Chernobyl nuclear accident had upon the Soviet Union's ruling regime. SARS is considered by these commentators to be such a dramatic demonstration of the failure of a closed society and its corrupt ruling party that the resulting loss of faith of the people for the government will lead to liberalizing reforms. The Economist argues that while this is possible that it is important to note a number of important differences between the Soviet Union in 1986 and China in 2003.

Caution is in order: there are some obvious differences between China in 2003 and the Soviet Union in 1986. First, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is an economic success story—China has just posted a growth rate of 9.9% for the first quarter of this year—whereas Soviet communism was a bust. True, China's economic development is lopsided, the figures dubious, the risk of social tension palpable. But there is simply no comparison with the dilapidated, aftershave-swigging wreck over which Mr Gorbachev presided. Second, China has already had one experiment with political reform, the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, which were ruthlessly suppressed.

There are other important differences as well. The Soviet Union was suffering from imperial overreach in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. By contrast, China does not find it at all difficult to hang onto its sparsely populated western territories and China is ethnically much more homogeneous than the USSR. China also does not feel the pressure of an arms race the way the USSR did in the 1980s with its long border with NATO in Europe.

Perry Link, like Willy Wo-Lap Lam, sees the factions in the Chinese leadership as competing to use SARS to gain at the expense of other factions. Link does not see SARS as a Chinese Chernobyl.

Chernobyl inspired glasnost because Mikhail Gorbachev chose to see it as serving the Soviet Union's best interests. But for a decade now, Chinese leaders have been looking at the Gorbachev precedent and inferring exactly the opposite lesson: they believe Gorbachev made a fatal mistake by loosening up. True, some Chinese leaders secretly may be waiting for a chance to dismantle China's repressive system and thereby earn a glorious place in Chinese history. But there is currently no evidence of that.

Among those hoping that SARS will be China's Chernobyl is former US ambassador to China Winston Lord.

"SARS showed that the Chinese political system has got to catch up with the technology," Lord said. "In the age of the Internet and cell phones that it could keep this sickness secret from the Chinese people and ultimately the world ... the Chinese ought to get on top of this and change that system.

Lord brings up an important element that is weakening the hold of the Chinese Communist Party on the Chinese people: advances in communication that make it easier to find out information that the government wishes to suppress. Can a dictatorship maintain control in spite of greater access by the populace to outside sources of information? It seems unreasonable to assume that a dictatorial government will automatically be overthrown if only the populace has enough access to uncensored information. In order for a populace to rise up it has to be both highly dissatisfied with the present state of affairs and to believe that a revolution would lead to a better system of government.

What would cause the Chinese populace to become much more dissatisfied? Obviously, SARS is a threat that many Chinese people feel personally. The direct threat combined with the belief that the government has mismanaged the response to SARS to cause the threat to become so big in the first place certainly increases Chinese popular dissatisfaction. But the disease so far has not killed many people and even in Beijing it is unlilkely that most people personally know anyone who has been killed by SARS.

There is a way that SARS still could cause a destabilization of China. If SARS continues to spread and extreme measures to deal with it continue to be necessary then the Chinese middle class will economically suffer.

If the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, were to grow out of control for many months, it could cripple the fast-growing economy, which might be the gravest concern to the ruling elite. A faltering economy would deal a blow to the nascent middle class and leave millions of laid-off state employees and migrant workers out of jobs, threatening domestic stability.

This is an important point to realize: the biggest effect of SARS for most people is and will continue to be economic. The spread of SARS can be controlled with quarantines and modifications of the behavior of the populace in infected areas. But all the adjustments come at an economic cost. The problem for the Beijing regime is that as the cost grows so will the popular dissatisaction. Still, it is likely that the regime will suppress any popular expressions of discontent. The regime's mechanisms for stifling dissent are probably still sufficiently effective to intimidate the public out of any mass protests. Also, the fear of the public about being out in crowds actually works to the advantage of the regime. In cities whose streets are nearly empty large street protest seem highly unlikely. SARS is an even more effective agent of fear than the police state.

There is still a way that SARS might, in the long run, spark a lasting reform movement in China. The inadequate Mexican government response to the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985 encouraged the technocrats who ruled Mexico to start reforming the political system of Mexico.

The crisis of legitimacy posed by the earthquake was a catalyst; it convinced the Mexican public and many of the technocrats that Mexico had to change in a fundamental way—that its society and politics, not just its economy, had to welcome new ideas.

Could Chinese technocrats and the ruling elite decide that SARS demonstrates such fundamental flaws in the Chinese system as to require a large reform of their system of government? Certainly foreign and domestic popular pressure will push them in that direction. But I would still bet against SARS as serving as the catalyst to cause the development of liberal democracy in China. The elites, knowledgeable of the numerous tumults of Chinese history and of the fate of other communist regimes, fear that any reform process that allows full free expression and democratization would spin out of control into chaos and revolution.

Update: MOre details on the power struggle going on around SARS in China:

Officials loyal to Mr Jiang, who stepped down from the presidency in March, are believed to have backed the idea of under-reporting the SARS epidemic and lying to the World Health Organisation and foreign governments.

Mr Hu and Mr Wen went along with that plan but, sensing an opportunity, changed course several weeks ago and now advocate more truthful reporting and co-operation, officials in Beijing and Guangdong province said.

This confirms what I've read elsewhere: the SARS cover-up in Beijing was approved at the highest levels. The idea that the top leaders intervened to punish lower level officials for a cover-up run by the lower levels is as much propaganda as the cover-up itself.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 April 30 04:01 PM  Culture Open Versus Closed Societies


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