Sars fallout bodes well for winds of change

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 2003, 12:00am

Beijing has rarely seen a Sunday afternoon quite like it. Two senior officials sacked, dramatic new figures released attempting to show the full extent of an emerging crisis and a frank press conference that ran for more than two hours before an international audience.

If the new leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao was looking to make up lost ground over the Sars crisis with some decisive moves, they certainly appear to have done so. It can only be hoped that they have struck a blow for transparency and good governance.

The figures released by Gao Qiang, executive deputy minister of health, certainly highlighted just how deep the Sars crisis is being felt - 346 confirmed infections across Beijing and a further 402 suspected cases. The numbers are nearly 10 times the original 37 confirmed cases that officials had been clinging to in the face of growing domestic concern and international criticism.

By the end of the afternoon, Mr Gao was announced as the party boss in the Health Ministry in place of Zhang Wenkang. Hainan party secretary Wang Qishan, meanwhile, has been named deputy Beijing party secretary, replacing Meng Xuenong. The pair's appointments as health minister and Beijing mayor are now seen as a formality.

Even one of the original whistle-blowers, veteran military doctor and party member Jiang Yanyong, expressed considerable surprise at the speed of events.

Those seeking the usual political motives may be disappointed. Mr Zhang had close ties to former president Jiang Zemin, while Mr Meng was considered a protege of Mr Hu. Instead, insiders and analysts were describing the move as a bold attempt by a new leadership to react to its first real crisis, an attempt to re-gain international credibility while easing domestic concerns.

In that light, the moves must be welcomed. Undoubtedly the central government made many mistakes in its handling of the Sars issue from its genesis in Guangdong in November. As late as these moves may have been, that is no reason to ignore them.

They hint, of course, at the need for action on a much deeper level. The central government must now act in a more broad way to show it has learned deeper lessons that will take more than just yesterday's moves to address.

The crisis has exposed systemic problems across China's health services and the way important information is managed. As the mainland opens in so many ways, so does its population demand greater and more timely access to information affecting their health and livelihoods. The earliest days of the Guangdong infections showed just how complex that issue is fast becoming, as rumours spread by mobile phone messages and the Internet.

Then there is the health system itself. Mr Gao's press conference yesterday left little doubt about the extent of communication problems across a system that sees some hospitals run by the central government and other institutions operated by local administrators. Then there are the military hospitals, whose data bases fall into the realm of state secrets - a term which, in this case, appears to speak to a different age.

Sweeping bureaucratic change is never an easy thing to achieve in any system, much less one as vast and complex as China's. Yesterday's moves, however, appear to reflect a leadership that is more than aware of the problems it is facing.

The Sars crisis may be one of the greatest to hit China for years but that does not mean the outlook is all bleak. It may have brought a new energy and need to take the economic openness of recent years into a wider arena.