The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Veil of fear hasn’t lifted in SARS-free Beijing

Beijing, June 25: It was celebration time for sales boys and girls at the fashionable shopping street of Wangfujing.

Sanlitun, or Bar Street, as foreigners call it, had late-night revellers again after what seemed a long, unending time of gloom and doom.

Yet, the veil of fear and despair hasn’t quite lifted from China’s capital city even after the World Health Organisation yesterday declared it SARS-free at last. The city had remained under a kind of siege since the early weeks of April, when people panicked either to come into the city from outside or to go out of it. Many fled to villages in SARS-free provinces, but many more suffered unofficial quarantine as the government restricted travel for the people of Beijing to other areas fearing that they might carry the dreaded disease with them to unaffected places.

Li Jing, a young woman who works with the online edition of People’s Daily, the organ of the ruling Chinese communist party, couldn’t go home to Inner Mongolia even for an important local festival beginning on May 1. “I lived in panic here and my mother cried daily on phone,” Li recalled. In the row of hotels on Changan Avenue, loss of jobs stared hundreds of part-time workers in their faces, as foreigners and even the Chinese from other parts of China shunned Beijing as the city of the deadly disease.

It almost became a social and psychological crisis the nation of economic miracles had not faced for a long time. Despite the economic progress and the westernisation of the youth in its big cities, most of China remains deeply traditional. “Our room occupancy dropped to just three per cent, Sara Liu, public relations manager of the five-star Great Wall Sheraton Hotel, said. It has slowly risen to 30 per cent after the scare lost its intensity.

Shares in the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets crashed. But the deaths — 191 from 2,521 cases in Beijing — and the job losses seemed small compared to the loss of face — and faith — that China’s new rulers faced at home and abroad.

As the pitch of international condemnation of China’s attempts to hide the epidemic from people and countries heightened, heads began to roll. As is the custom here, the axe fell on the two biggest heads — the health minister and the mayor of Beijing, both of whom were sacked .

But even that didn’t quite end the embarrassment of the new government under President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. International analysts saw in the SARS shock yet another proof of “the systemic failure” that they find in other spheres of public life. SARS shook the world’s faith in new China and its new leaders.

Although there could hardly be a comparison between the two, SARS in the time of economic boom was being referred to as a historical parallel to the millions of deaths in the time of the Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.

Little wonder that the celebration time has been tempered by caution. “Blind optimism” would be premature, leaders and the Chinese media warned, referring to the return of the disease to Toronto.

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