China's crisis managers take the stage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 April, 2003, 12:00am

It seems that every new generation of leaders has a baptism of fire. In 1998, horrific Yangtze river flooding gave the third generation a crisis they turned around. Villages that had been wiped out became the focus of new construction projects which, in turn, stimulated the economy and improved infrastructure and living standards.

In some ways, severe acute respiratory syndrome is forcing the fourth generation to recognise the importance of information credibility in the Internet age, while enforcing long-overdue hygiene standards - essentially rethinking what it means to be a modern country in the 21st century.

The people have their own way of interpreting events. In 1998, they pointed out that the Chinese characters which made up the name Zemin in then president Jiang Zemin's name literally mean people will get soaked. Now, speculation on the street points to the fact that the Wen, of Wen Jiabao, rhymes with wenyi, which means plague. Interpretation aside, China's fourth generation faces an unprecedented challenge: activating antiquated health-care facilities to contain and diminish the spread of Sars, while restoring credibility.

A first, critical step in the right direction was the sacking of Beijing's mayor, Meng Xuenong, who had been fudging figures and exhorting Beijingers not to worry because everything was under control, when clearly it was not.

On April 15, the Central Committee sent a team to find out how bad the Sars situation really was in the capital. Two vice-ministers from the Health Ministry, Gao Qiang and Zhu Qingsheng, led the investigation. Looking at every hospital, Mr Gao cross-checked official statistics issued by the Beijing government against registrations in hospitals. This revealed a huge discrepancy between the official 37 cases reported by the municipality and information on file at each hospital. By April 19, a total of 339 confirmed cases had been discovered; seven more were added by April 21, with an additional 402 suspected cases - bringing the probable total to 741, excluding 18 who had already died and 33 who had recovered from the disease.

In a sudden move, Hainan party secretary Wang Qishan was airlifted to Beijing to take up the post of acting mayor. He is due to be confirmed in the position soon. The decisiveness of the Central Committee Organisation Department is a good sign. There could be no better person to lead in a crisis than 53-year-old Mr Wang.

He is considered young and in his political prime. Long recognised as former premier Zhu Rongji's right-hand man, Mr Wang carries much of his mentor's character. He is known for his cool head, quick reading of a problem and decisive action. In 1993, when Mr Zhu, then vice-premier, took the reigns at the central bank, Mr Wang served as vice-governor, working on monetary policy matters to control inflation and unravel debt.

Later, Mr Zhu sent him to clean up the troubled Construction Bank, and then on to Guangdong to dissolve the financial institutions Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corp, and Guangdong Enterprises, where he simultaneously shocked international creditors and earned their respect. Afterwards, Mr Wang returned to Beijing to head the State Council Office for Reform of Economic Systems, Mr Zhu's key think-tank.

With the change in leadership, Mr Wang was dispatched to Hainan to clean up bad assets and loans lingering from the city's property bubble. Now, he has been recalled to Beijing to handle a bigger and altogether different crisis.

The swift replacement of the mayor is good news to many in a capital long tired of bureaucratic mismanagement. Moreover, it represents clear recognition by the Central Committee that problems must be tackled head on rather than obscured. Choosing a protege of Mr Zhu to do the job will lift confidence.

Mr Wang carries the respect and credibility of international business and financial circles, but managing the capital's Sars crisis may be his biggest challenge yet. Beijing politics is often a springboard to the very top. If Mr Wang handles it well, he may rise.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing