Much as I admire Andy Xie's economic analysis of China, I cannot agree with his rather optimistic expectations for a bureaucracy which reforms itself out of existence. I think the lack of democracy in China, and it's consequent difficulties in handling information (eg the recent case where thousands of internet cafes were closed down due to the 'fire risk' - presumably because news from any uncontrolled source might prove to be extremely 'hot stuff' and 'highly inflammable'), constitutes a real problem for China, and, as China eases itself into the world's second economy slot, for the rest of us. It also, and obviously, places a cap on China's own economic evolution in the information age, this is why I have China penciled-in as the world's manufacturing hub and India as the information one. Meantime Sars continues to highlight what the problem might look like. The image of Chinese President Hu Jintao ordering health officials to be truthful would be hilarious (possibly even more hilarious than the recent Iraq information minister's vision of reality) if it wasn't so macabre. If the Sars statistics for China are extremely suspect (and they are) then this must be because the orders have, up to now, been saying something very different. If you think I am exaggerating, then note the point about non-coverage in the Chinese press of WHO Sars estimates for China. Following closely events in Japan, and now China, has lead me to one conclusion: western analysts have a lot to learn when it comes to getting to grips with political and social realities in Asia.
President Hu Jintao has stepped into the growing crisis over China's cover-up of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) statistics, ordering officials at all levels to come clean, state press reported on Friday. Mr Hu, facing his first major test since assuming power in March, warned government departments and health authorities to "accurately report on the epidemic... and keep the public informed," the English-language China Daily paraphrased him as saying. He demanded that there be no cover-ups, warning officials "not to withhold any information and delay its release." And after weeks of leading government officials saying Sars was effectively controlled, Mr Hu admitted "the fight against the disease is a difficult one and will take a long time".The Xinhua news agency said that the top Communist Party leaders held emergency talks on the spiralling problem on Thursday, chaired by Mr Hu, following damning criticism by the World Health Organisation about the way China was handling Sars, particularly in Beijing. The meeting "explicitly warned against the covering up of Sars cases and demanded the accurate, timely and honest reporting of the Sars situation".
The report was front-paged by all major Chinese dailies, which have practiced a selective news blackout on the scale of the epidemic and its handling by the government. While all papers referred to a "cover-up", WHO estimates that the numbers infected by Sars are substantially more than admitted were not mentioned for a second day. The meeting of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Political Bureau urged the "continuous and relentless strengthening of Sars control work," stressing the "extreme importance" of controlling the flu-like pneumonia. Xinhua said the nine-man meeting concluded that Sars was having "a significant impact on the health and lives of the people and on the overall situation of China's reform, development and stability".It also promised greater international co-operation on the disease, and, five months after Sars first appeared in southern Guangdong province, urged "the mobilisation of large numbers of people to carry out monitoring work." China has officially reported 66 deaths and more than 1,400 cases of Sars nationwide, including 40 cases and four deaths in Beijing. WHO experts on Wednesday estimated up to 200 cases could be lurking in the Chinese capital alone, with more than 1,000 patients "under observation". Since it was first detected in Guangdong province, the disease has spread worldwide, killing more than 160 people and infecting over 3,500.
Source: South China Morning Post
The mainland print media did not report predictions made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) yesterday that the spread of Sars would grow without urgent measures, or that the number of people infected in Beijing could be as high as 200. No major daily newspaper carried reports of a press conference held by the WHO this week warning that the incidence of Sars was being under-reported by the government. Only the English-language China Daily covered the press conference. The newspaper said the official published numbers of Sars cases in China was probably under-reported due to the large number of patients who are "under observation" for Sars and not confirmed cases. The story ran under a headline which said "WHO: no cover-up of disease in Beijing.'' The WHO said on Wednesday that the Sars outbreak in Beijing was far worse than authorities had admitted, pointing to hundreds of "probable" cases and at least 1,000 in hospital with symptoms. The lack of reporting on the situation in Beijing appeared to reflect the tight control on Sars information in the mainland press. The central government's official acknowledgment of the disease only came in February, when it said the outbreak was "effectively controlled". Since then the numbers of officially reported cases have grown nationwide 4.7 times to 1,435, while the fatalities have increased 12.8 times to 64. At various times since the first cases were reported in November, sources in the mainland media say they have been ordered not to cover the spread of the disease. On Wednesday, the WHO urgently told Beijing health officials that they needed to improve their Sars surveillance system, address widespread rumours and discuss the epidemic publicly. "One of our recommendations was to improve rumour management, as there are many rumours," said Henk Bekedam, a WHO official. "The government should deal with rumours properly. Now is the time to build confidence They should be very clear with the figures and respond to rumours."
Source: South China Morning Post