Jiang gives blessing to the battle against virus

Since the sacking of two senior officials last weekend, speculation has been mounting over signs of rivalry at the top of the Communist Party as China grapples with the Sars crisis. In particular, one question has been doing the rounds of political analysts: where is former president Jiang Zemin?

The answer was delivered in person yesterday as China's senior leadership put on an overt display of unity, vowing to defeat the Sars virus as Vice-Premier Wu Yi was appointed the new health minister. The only woman member in the Politburo, Ms Wu, 64, is thought to have been given extensive powers to bring under control the outbreak, which has claimed 122 lives on the mainland.

Yet her confirmation was overshadowed by the appearance of the former president in the first news item on state television last night. Still the chairman of the Central Military Commission, Mr Jiang made his first public comments on the outbreak, praising the new government for its 'notable achievements in containing the disease'.

'The [Communist Party] Central Committee and the State Council hold a highly responsible attitude to the people,' Mr Jiang was quoted saying in Shanghai.

Analysts and foreign media have claimed that the Sars outbreak might be 'China's Chernobyl' - a reference to the nuclear disaster that preceded the glasnost era of reforms in the Soviet Union. Attention has been focused on potential rivalry among the leadership, with allegations that some senior leaders, including Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, have kept an 'unusual silence' over the crisis.

Also speaking out yesterday was Premier Wen Jiabao, who toured a construction site, a shopping centre and Peking University in a bid to reassure a jittery public. 'As long as we are united ... we can no doubt overcome this serious disaster,' he was quoted as saying.

Beijing's acting Mayor, Wang Qishan, meanwhile met foreign business leaders in the capital. His efforts came as analysts were revising downwards their forecasts for economic growth this year. Goldman Sachs managing director Fred Hu Zuilu said the outbreak would knock half a percentage point off his forecast, bringing it down to 7 per cent or, if it continued for two more quarters, around 6 per cent - the lowest growth since 1990.

On the bright side, the Goldman Sachs analyst said it was clear the central leadership was focused on tackling the outbreak. 'Once China's leaders focus on a problem and are determined to take action, they usually manage to resolve them - sometimes with brutal efficiency,' he said in a report out yesterday. 'You may call that a virtue of authoritarian government.'