Lessons from China's SARS debacle
By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Despite last Sunday's sacking of two ministerial-level cadres for covering up the pneumonia epidemic, the Hu Jintao leadership needs to do a lot more to promote the culture of truth-telling and full disclosure.
It is true the dismissal of Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong showed to some extent Premier Wen Jiabao was serious about penalizing officials for "delayed reporting, under-reporting or hiding of facts" relating to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Zhang used to be former president Jiang Zemin's personal physician and Meng is deemed a protege of President Hu's.
Also last Sunday, health officials disclosed a SARS figure for the capital – 346 confirmed and 402 suspected cases – that was much closer to the truth than the 37 cases reported just a day earlier.
The decision by Hu and Wen to come clean on the deadly disease demonstrated the new leadership was in many ways sincere about not only media but other aspects of political reform.
However, it is important to note that covering up or embellishing the truth has become second nature to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, a mind-set that is difficult to eradicate without more thorough-going reforms.
In spite of last Sunday's gesture of compliance with the demands of the World Health Organization and world opinion, doubts linger as to whether Chinese cadres will henceforward meet Hu and Wen's requirement about "accurate, timely and honest reporting."
So far, not a single official has admitted to the willful hiding or distortion of facts and figures.
For example, Executive Vice Minister of Health Gao Qiang claimed discrepancies in Beijing's SARS statistics were only due to "poor coordination" among government departments and hospitals.
Factual and statistical obfuscation in numerous provinces and cities, particularly those in central and western provinces, have yet to be investigated or publicized.
And most of the nearly 200 hospitals under the People's Liberation Army have not fully divulged information about SARS patients.
Moreover, in an apparent attempt to discourage whistle blowers, the State Council last week passed orders that all officials and medical personnel should "speak with one voice" -- that is, follow the party line -- when making public statements about the epidemic.
China observers think the Hu leadership must do at least two things to ensure administrative probity and transparency.
One is setting up institutions and mechanisms to ensure honesty and open governance.
As a result of media reforms introduced by Hu and Politburo Standing Committee member Li Changchun earlier this year, instructions have already been given to provinces and cities to stop interfering with efforts by media units under their jurisdictions to cover "negative" news and phenomena such as industrial and mining accidents.
Forward-looking cities such as coastal Guangzhou have adopted Regulations on Open Government Information that are similar to Freedom of Information Acts in Western countries.
However, it remains true the editors of major electronic and print media owe their jobs -- and promotion prospects -- to central and local-level propaganda departments.
And Beijing's permission is still required for exposing the misdemeanors or dereliction of duty of cadres at or above the level of vice-ministers or above.
Moreover, the mechanism of firing incompetent cadres is still subject to political or factional considerations.
While ministers such as Zhang clearly deserved dismissal, a number of well-connected officials have escaped punishment and criticism.
A case in point is Politburo member Li. As the de facto head of the media and propaganda machinery from last November, he cannot shirk the blame for its lack of transparency over SARS and related matters.
Moreover, as the party boss of Guangdong Province -- the "birthplace" of SARS -- from 1998 until late last year, Li may have to assume at least political responsibility over the epidemic.
Noted social scientist Hu Angang has proposed the National People's Congress set up a committee to conduct objective investigation into the SARS debacle.
Professor Hu said the legislature was in a good position to suggest which officials should be penalized and the kind of punishment to be meted out.
More importantly, the Hu-Wen team must rectify the CCP's time-honored tradition of regarding information as a political tool that can only be used by the party's top echelon.
As Bao Tong, a senior aide to disgraced party chief Zhao Ziyang pointed out in a recent article on SARS, the politicization and manipulation of news and information began with the CCP's first-generation leadership -- and was regarded as the party's "noble heirloom."
To ensure cadres will not prevaricate about SARS and other "negative" stories, today's leaders must demonstrate they have the courage to face up to -- and give a full account of -- the party's aberrations in the past decades.
These range from the famine of the late 1950s to early 1960s to the Tiananmen Square crackdown, details of which have never been divulged.
According to a Beijing-based party historian, many blunders and disasters of the recent decades are still cloaked in secrecy and lies because venerable CCP leaders or retired senior cadres were involved.
For example, he said, late patriarch Deng Xiaoping played a sizeable role in the infamous Anti-Rightist Movement of the 1950s, which led to the disgrace and death of tens of thousands of cadres and intellectuals.
Apart from Deng, a number of newly retired cadres took part in the decision to order soldiers to fire on students and civilians in the early hours of June 4, 1989.
The historian said giving a full disclosure of what – and who – was behind these scandals and debacles would help immeasurably to establish new norms about speaking the truth.
While it is unlikely that freshly installed leaders such as Hu or Wen would dare touch such historical taboos in the short term, fast-changing circumstances such as the SARS imbroglio may force them to bite the bullet sooner rather than later.
That Hu and many of his moderate colleagues are basically sympathetic toward a Chinese-style free speech movement is evident from their treatment of the petition that Li Rui wrote to the CCP Central Committee during the 16th Congress last November.
Li, a former secretary of Chairman Mao Zedong, urged the party to revise its verdict on the Tiananmen massacre.
Informed party sources said at the end of the congress, Hu and a few other like-minded Politburo members shook Li's hand and said they had received his petition.
This was widely interpreted as a symbolic gesture that Hu, Wen and their allies were on a similar wave length as that of the liberal elder.
The sources said the Hu team might have to do something drastic to address the credibility crisis that the CCP faced at home and abroad due to its mishandling of the SARS disaster.
And a courageous act such as coming clean on the party's mistakes in 1989 could go a long way toward earning back the international community's faith in Beijing's commitment to "seeking truth from facts."