| Chinese President Hu Jintao. (AFP)
Beijing, May 7 (Reuters): China’s dramatic decision to report openly on the SARS epidemic, followed quickly by its unprecedented disclosure of a submarine disaster, has spawned hopes that the country may be poised for more radical reforms.
In the same way the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 17 years ago drove reform of the Communist system and fuelled the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, some analysts say SARS presents China’s new leadership with a challenge that could stir change.
Beijing’s sudden openness on the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) after weeks of covering up its extent has raised questions as to how far Communist Party chief Hu Jintao and his leadership colleagues will go.
Will China move towards more openness on its other hushed-up health epidemic, AIDS' Will it reassess the bloody crackdown on democracy protesters on Tiananmen Square in 1989' Chinese and foreign analysts say such significant steps are unlikely. The media have been unleashed to cover disasters, but movement toward a truly free press remains remote, and a shift towards Western-style democracy out of the question, they said.
“The openness is merely to preserve the Communist Party’s rule,” said a Chinese political analyst. After widespread criticism at home and abroad for covering up SARS, China sacked the Beijing mayor and health minister and set the media loose to inform its 1.3 billion people about government action on the ballooning outbreak and how to avoid SARS.
Last week, the government surprised everyone with the extraordinary announcement that 70 sailors had died in a training accident aboard a conventional submarine off the eastern coast.
It appeared to be trying to offset the political damage from covering up the SARS outbreak, some analysts said today.
“The international outrage against China’s SARS cover-up has most definitely created a powerful impetus for China to be open about disasters,” said Maochun Yu of the US Naval Academy. “Accidents like this can’t be hidden for long when international intelligence-gathering has been so concentrated in the waters surrounding China.”
Unlike the evolving AIDS crisis, SARS emerged swiftly to pose a sudden threat on several fronts. Tourism, hotels, and restaurant business dried up. Air travel is down. Deals cut at the flagship trade fair in Guangzhou dropped to a 15-year low.
SARS also poses a challenge to poorly equipped medical facilities in the countryside Ä a key focal point for Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao, who have championed poor farmers.
Panic over SARS, playing out in scattered riots by villagers afraid of catching it, could undermine social stability.
While the government went public with the submarine accident, the details remain scant Ä not even the date was reported.
”I am inclined to think that the Chinese provided an explanation in order to pre-empt even more questions being asked,” said Steve Tsang, director of the Asian Studies Centre at Oxford University's St Antony's College.
”There is, up to now, little evidence to suggest the Chinese have come clean.”
Two former U.S. ambassadors to China, Winston Lord and J. Stapleton Roy, have likened the SARS crisis to the world's worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 and expressed hope it could prompt change in the Chinese system.
But Yu said whatever change came would be gradual and was unlikely to come from the current leadership.
”Like Chernobyl, what China is getting from the international condemnation may eventually help foment a glasnost with Chinese characteristics,” he said, referring to the political openness pushed by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
”Once a crack appears in the tightly controlled Chinese media, the floodgate for freedom and independence may become unstoppable and the demise of regime may be near. But then, we still yet have to wait for China's Gorbachev to show up.”
The constraints on how open China is prepared to be are apparent. The editor in chief of the popular, liberal Southern Weekend newspaper was recently sacked, and replaced by a propaganda tsar who had previously closed publications in the southern province of Guangdong.
The transparency might be welcome news to reporter Zhang Jicheng, who lost his job for reporting on the AIDS explosion in a village in Henan province during a 1999 blood donation scheme.
But Zhang turned down an interview request, a sign of a lack of confidence in China's new openness.
”I have to be careful about what I say,” he said.