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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 April, 2003, 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK
Beijing's credibility test over Sars
By Zhang Lifen
BBC World Service

Heads have finally rolled over the Chinese government's inaction and cover-up of the Sars virus.

Sacking the health minister and mayor of Beijing may calm public anger and demonstrate the resolve of the new leadership under Hu Jintao, who took over as President in March.

Hu Jintao
China's new leader faces his sternest test

But the problem does not end there. The mishandling of the crisis has put China's political and administrative system in the dock. And to the surprise of many seasoned China watchers, the Chinese media has raised the previously taboo subject of political reform and democratic governance.

"China should build up a national system of honest politics and administration as early as possible to prevent corruption" said Professor Hu Angang, in an article published on the website of the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's official newspaper.

The Chinese leadership is acutely aware of the need to salvage the government's much-dented credibility, both at home and abroad.

If things go well, fine. But if they don't go well, then Mr Hu's position as party secretary could be in danger
Wu Guoguang, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Ever since Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s, China's rulers have relied on the country's economic success for their legitimacy. The leadership believed that so long as people felt their daily lives were improving, they would not worry about one-party rule or political reform, with all its risks of social upheaval.

Under Jiang Zemin, Deng's successor, China's considerable economic growth and material improvements for large sections of Chinese society continued to obscure the underlying fact that the Communist Party, so long as it remained an unelected, one-party ruler, lacked popular legitimacy.

There is agreement among China watchers that one of the main reasons for China concealing the true picture of Sars was to protect its glossy image for foreign investors, guarantors of sustained economic growth.

Power struggle

The strategy has now back-fired. And the short-term deception could carry a huge price in the long run, both economically and politically.

Bao Tong, political secretary to the disgraced party chief Zhao Ziyang, pointed out in a recent analysis on Sars that the politicization and manipulation of news has been second nature to the Communist Party ever since it took power.

Chinese men wearing face masks
The question is how far the crisis has undermined popular trust in the government

Unfortunately, the practice of manipulating information goes further. For instance, China's dealing with the WHO, the UN's public health body, also presents a costly lesson.

By being secretive and concealing the full picture when the virus first emerged in November, China effectively turned down an expert helping hand and a much-needed sympathetic partner in combating the unknown epidemic.

The Sars crisis also raises the spectre of a possible political power struggle. The Chinese rumour mill has been working hard recently, with serious concerns being raised about Hu Jintao's political future if the crisis gets worse.

Wu Guoguang, a former government aide who now lectures at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Jiang Zemin and his protégé, Zeng Qinghong, were waiting to see what happened next.

Under one scenario, China could emerge as more honest and more confident in dealing with itself and the world

"If things go well, fine. But if they don't go well, then Mr Hu's position as party secretary could be in danger," he said.

"Hu Jintao could become the scapegoat in a power struggle, with Mr. Zeng taking real power," he said.

Despite these worries, some good could still come out of the Sars crisis.

It may seem unfortunate for Mr Hu and the rest of the newly-installed leadership that they face one of the Communist Party's biggest credibility tests so soon after taking power.

But it could become their finest hour. Under one scenario, China could emerge as more honest and more confident in dealing with itself and the world.

But to achieve this, China needs to urgently move towards establishing a genuine civil service so that its government can become open, transparent and accountable. In doing so, it would nurture citizenship and people's confidence in the system, rather than in individual politicians.

Government credibility is key for all that to happen.

One thing seems certain. Without credibility, China watchers argue, the country's economic and modernisation hopes are at risk. More seriously, if the Sars crisis spills over and causes political instability, that would alarm the rest of the world.

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