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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 May, 2003, 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK
Sars threat to Communist Party

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC Correspondent in Beijing

Sars propaganda in Beijing
Sars is proving a political danger as well as a health crisis

How much does Sars pose a threat to the Communist party's grip on power in China?

One might argue that it should present a considerable threat, given the fact that the Chinese government has both tried to cover up the epidemic, and failed to stop its spread.

Is it then, as some have suggested, China's Chernobyl? It certainly has some of the same characteristics.

At first complete denial, then a grudging admission, while continuing to play down the seriousness of the situation.

Finally a full admission under intense pressure from the international community.

The government is all just a bunch of gangsters
Beijing taxi driver

And in the immediate aftermath of that admission there was, for a fleeting moment, a feeling that something might change.

Beijing seethed with fear and anger.

"The government's all just a bunch of gangsters," one Beijing taxi driver spat.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers swarmed bus and railway stations, finding any way they could to get out of the blighted city.

As public opinion swung against them, the Communist Party reacted in an uncharacteristically open way.

Heads rolled. First to go was the health minister and the Mayor of Beijing.

China's new President Hu Jintao appeared on television. There would be no more lies, he said, from now on anyone caught trying to cover up the seriousness of the Sars epidemic would face severe punishment.

Propaganda songs

But the moment of openness was brief.

Within days the Communist Party's traditional propaganda machine was rolling into action, churning out new slogans, and theme tunes for the new war against Sars.

"Angels in White Coats", a new song glorifying the selfless deeds of China's doctors and nurses, has been hastily recorded.

Films will not be far behind. Propaganda is the Communist Party's stock in trade, and they are good at it.

They are good too at mobilising people and resources, and have no qualms about using authoritarian methods.

On the outskirts of Beijing a new 1,000-bed Sars isolation hospital was built from scratch in eight days.

There are now nearly 18,000 people in quarantine in Beijing.

More than 30,000 inspectors are being sent door-to- door, checking people for any signs of Sars.

Not under control

And public opinion has begun swinging back their way. It is almost impossible to find anyone in Beijing who thinks what the government is doing is wrong.

On the surface at least the anger of two weeks ago has evaporated.

So does that mean that China's Communist rulers can sleep easy again, safe in the knowledge that their jobs are secure?

That will depend on what happens to the Sars epidemic.

At the moment it looks anything but under control, and for that the party has only itself to blame.

Had China's leaders acted early and decisively they may have had a chance of getting Sars under control.

But by the time they finally owned up the virus was already spreading fast.

In Beijing the first hospitals assigned to deal with Sars had such inadequate facilities they only helped to spread the virus faster.

Worst of all, the shock and panic created by the government's belated admission sent hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing back to the countryside.

There can be little doubt that many took the virus with them.

If, as looks increasingly likely, there are fresh outbreaks now brewing in China's countryside, if the epidemic cannot be brought under control, if economic growth is hit hard, and unemployment starts to rise, then China's Communist rulers still have plenty to worry about.


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