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Turning a crisis into an opportunity

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam, CNN Senior China Analyst

A health worker sprays disinfectant at the Beijing railway station.
A health worker sprays disinfectant at the Beijing railway station.

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• Gallery: Living with SARS 
• Interactive: What is SARS? 
• Interactive: SARS outbreak timeline 
• Country breakdown: Probable cases of SARS 
• Special report: SARS virus on the move 

• Factfile: NPC key agenda
• Profile: Who is Hu Jintao?
• Profile: Jiang Zemin's legacy
• Special report: New leaders

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- One of the most frequently asked questions in Beijing's political circles is will Hu Jintao play the "anti-corruption card"?

The new president could yet turn the crisis caused by the pneumonia outbreak into an opportunity by getting rid of more bad apples among cadres -- and by going the distance in administrative reform.

Given the way that the Beijing leadership has covered up and otherwise mishandled the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, it may not be easy for the Hu team to earn back the trust of Chinese and foreigners in the near term.

However, Hu and allies such as Premier Wen Jiabao could re-establish their credibility and authority if they can use SARS as a proverbial tupokou ("breakthrough point") for reforming the cadre and political system.

Bold moves in these areas could serve to both divert public attention from the raging pandemic and put Hu's political foes -- particularly those who have criticized his anti-SARS measures -- on the defensive.

After the sacking of Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong a week or so ago, several mid-ranking officials in provinces including Hunan and Hainan have been dismissed for dereliction of duty.

There is growing demand for Beijing to go one step further by putting together a cadre system that is accountable to and subject to the scrutiny of the people.

According to a survey by the respected Beijing-based SSIC opinion poll company, 76% of the public was "satisfied" with the dismissal of Zhang and Meng.

Most respondents in the survey also said there should be institutions and mechanisms to ensure that officials would "implement policy for the sake of the people."

And the Hu-Wen team could score even more points by going after the thousands of corrupt cadres who are riding high thanks to sterling political connections.

Hu and company could also use the anti-SARS crusade as a stimulus for the president's five-month-old campaign of "administering the country according to law."

As the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary last week, "doing things according to the law" was a prerequisite for winning over the epidemic.

It is understood that Hu had, together with associates such Wu Guanzheng and Li Zhilun, laid the groundwork for a blitzkrieg against corrupt officials well before the SARS outbreak.

Politburo member Wu is Secretary of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), the nation's top anti-graft watchdog, while Li is Minister of Supervision.

During an inspection trip to Sichuan Province a fortnight ago, Wu pointed out that "everybody is equal before party discipline and the laws of the state."

Wu warned that all corrupt officials, no matter how senior, would be "penalized according to [party] discipline and the law and there is no question of leniency."

Hu and Wu's relationship goes back to their days as students at Tsinghua University in the 1960s, while Li had worked for several years in a unit of the Communist Youth League -- Hu's power base.

As a Beijing-based party source put it: "Hu is convinced that if he sticks to the law and proper judicial procedures, he can go after even members of the so-called Jiang Zemin and Shanghai Faction."

For example, quite a few affiliates of the Jiang Faction are believed to have been implicated in the multi-billion yuan smuggling and graft scandal that centered on the southern seaport of Xiamen.

Public parks and popular tourist spots are now almost empty in Beijing.
Public parks and popular tourist spots are now almost empty in Beijing.

And while the Xiamen case was supposedly closed last year, there is evidence the CCDI is gearing up for more investigative work concerning the tens of tainted cadres who are still at large.

The party source added the Hu camp might want to wield the anti-graft card to forestall more attacks from Shanghai Faction affiliates against its fumbling efforts against SARS.

It is significant that former president Jiang, who has retained his post as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Jiang cronies such as Politburo member Zeng Qinghong, parliament chief Wu Bangguo, and Executive Vice-Premier Huang Ju, have kept their comments on SARS to a minimum.

It was not until last Saturday that Jiang, who is known for his love of the media limelight, said anything public about the disease.

While meeting a senior Indian delegation in Shanghai, Jiang praised party and government authorities for doing a good job regarding SARS, adding they were "highly responsible" regarding the people's demands.

It seems hardly a coincidence that it was also last weekend that Zeng, Wu and Huang made their first public statements about the epidemic.

On separate occasions, Zeng, Wu and Huang -- all of whom being former leaders of Shanghai -- called upon the nation to fight the disease in a united fashion and under "the leadership of party central [authorities] with comrade Hu Jintao as General Secretary."

Diplomatic analysts said it was remarkable that these Jiang or Shanghai Faction stalwarts had waited this long before coming out in support of the president.

Moreover, Hu had to somehow return the compliments at a Politburo meeting on SARS last Monday, when the president cited Jiang's "Theory of the Three Represents" (that the party must represent advanced productivity and the people's interests) as the guiding spirit for combating the epidemic.

The analysts said Hu's next steps depended on whether the coronavirus behind the disease would wilt in the summer heat -- and whether the Hu camp could turn anti-SARS efforts into an ideological crusade for rallying support for the president.

After all, it is almost a reflex action for an experienced CCP leader to convert a nationwide battle against major calamities into a propaganda exercise to drum up support for himself.

The most recent instance of this was the horrendous floods of 1998, when then president Jiang obliged pretty much all regional and military cadres to pledge their utmost to fight the deluge -- and to support the "party center with comrade Jiang Zemin as its core."

Late last week, the CCP Propaganda Department -- which is under the joint control of Hu and Zeng -- issued a circular urging the entire country to wage a "patriotic public-health movement" under the leadership of the party Central Committee with Hu as General Secretary.

Whether the pandemic will be tamed soon -- or whether factional strife within the party will erupt over issues including SARS and corruption -- could depend in large measure on the success of this intriguing political campaign.

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