Will SARS Transform China's Chiefs?

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Why did the Chinese government want to cover up SARS? Who lied and why? Does the sacking of two high-level officials, Minister of Health Zhang Wenkang and Beijing's Mayor Meng Xuenong, mean that China is on the verge of liberalization?

The answers to these questions can be found in the way the Chinese leadership handles information. The Communist Party runs two different communication systems with very different missions. One system collects information and sends it up the bureaucratic hierarchy. This information is supposed to be — and often is — solid and "objective." But it is kept secret. The higher a person's position, the higher the quantity and quality of the information he receives. The other system channels information from the top down. This is the open, public information Party leaders have decided that people below them may — and in some cases should — know about. It might or might not be solid, but it should never harm the interests of the leaders.

The two systems work in tandem, often with the same officials performing both functions. During the nationwide student demonstrations in 1989, New China News Agency reporters in all the provinces wrote detailed daily reports on local student activities and sent them to Beijing for the eyes of top leaders. The information was remarkably accurate; but hardly any of it went into the agency's bulletins that were sent back down the bureaucracy, which merely told the citizenry that "a small clique of hooligans was causing turmoil."

A bureaucrat in both systems might drag his feet in reporting bad news, because in Chinese culture local trouble, whatever its cause, is assumed to reflect poorly on local leaders. But his clear duty is always to report truthfully to those above and speak officially to those below. The by-product of the difference between the two systems is prevarication.

With SARS, as with earlier crises man-made (Tiananmen in 1989) or natural (the Tangshan earthquake of 1976) in China, the spread of information to the public underwent distinct stages. The first stage is cover-up. If that fails, the next is to say "the problem is small." If that becomes untenable, the last message is "everything is under control." Meanwhile, the flow of accurate information upward is never supposed to stop. We do not know when word of SARS first reached Beijing, but in late February the government's propaganda department ordered a halt to public reporting on the disease in order to "ensure the smoothness" of the National People's Congress meetings in March. Since then the Politburo has met three times about SARS. Party boss and President Hu Jintao has issued nine directives on the topic and Premier Wen Jiabao has released 29. Still, at a meeting of the Politburo's Standing Committee on April 17, Zhang Wenkang and Meng Xuenong were accused of failing to keep their superiors adequately informed. For that, they were made scapegoats.

But if the need for scapegoats is routine, the question of who should be purged is almost never so. Factionalism sometimes so dominates the decision making that dispatching a political opponent can become the main reason for the firing. Strategies and motivations for such maneuvers are usually kept private. It is hard to say, for example, whether the current shake-up will affect the balance of power between Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Of the two positions at stake, mayor of Beijing is far more important politically than Minister of Health. Beijing mayors have been chosen with great care ever since Chairman Mao's day. If push comes to shove, administrative control of China's seat of power outweighs many other things, including public health. So who wins and who loses when Meng Xuenong is replaced by Wang Qishan? Meng is from the Communist Youth League organization, a base for Hu Jintao. Wang Qishan has recently been close to former Premier and economic reformer Zhu Rongji, but was also once favored by Chen Yun, a champion of central planning, and is the son-in-law of the late Yao Yilin, a conservative Party elder. It is not clear where Wang will stand on issues. Zhang Wenkang, the sacked Health Minister, was once Jiang Zemin's personal doctor and has been politically close to Jiang for a long time. But Jiang has so many other allies in the Politburo and military that this loss hardly seems to matter.

The process of the personnel shifts might be more significant than the shifts themselves. Apparently Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao made the decisions and then ushered them through the Politburo without consulting Jiang. Hu and Wen, who since last November have made some tentative moves toward press freedom, seem also to be using the admission of SARS patients into military hospitals to leverage more access to the military bureaucracies controlled by Jiang's group.

At the fringes, such efforts to skirt Jiang might do some good for liberalization in the mainland. Some China watchers have even speculated that SARS might be the country's Chernobyl — a traumatic event that forces a closed political system into more permanent openness. Such optimism is probably misplaced. 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.

On the contrary, the current generation of top leaders, educated Soviet-style in the 1950s and 1960s, and having traveled abroad less than even previous generations, are inured to the system in which they rose. It is the only system they truly understand, and control of information is its lifeblood. They are still unlikely to relinquish that control willingly.

Perry Link is professor of East Asian studies at Princeton University. His latest book is The Uses of Literature: Life in the Socialist Chinese Literary System