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SARS can modernize China in the long term
Chen Chih-jou

Beijing's main street, Chang-an Avenue, is almost empty.

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The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is an early test for China's new generation of leaders like President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

If the epidemic is handled properly, the SARS storm will allow Hu and Wen to transform China's entrenched bureaucracy and red tape. China's political system will then be able to meet the efficiency requirements demanded by the globalized market economy. But SARS will be a governance crisis and a social disaster if it is not properly handled.

In recent years, China has proven able to deal with, or at least suppress, problems related to Falun Gong, AIDS and the protests of laid-off workers. Why should SARS be an exception? The challenge of the SARS crisis lies in, first, the nature of the problem and, second, the means to solve the problem.

The SARS problem is different from those of Falun Gong, AIDS and laid-off worker protests. China's social problems normally have clear and definite targets, a clear range of influence and often focus on particular social groups. As for SARS, no-one can be spared from its epidemic nature.

Even places such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada are at the end of their wits. Therefore, once the SARS epidemic spreads in China, people's anxiety and discontent will be understandable. This explains why Beijing took drastic measures to remove the health minister and Beijing city mayor to show the government's determination to fight SARS.

However, the key to the SARS problem is the required terms and conditions for fighting the disease, which happen to be China's Achilles heel. SARS cannot be dealt with by resorting to government authority, police and military armed forces, monetary resources or the control of information. There is no way to solve the SARS problem by money or armed force. Rather, the fight against SARS must rely on an efficient bureaucracy, a resourceful medical treatment system and the dissemination of open, accurate, detailed information. China lacks all of these prerequisites.

After more than 20 years of reforms, China now has adequate resources to meet urgent needs. However, its bureaucracy has gradually become departmentalized and localized. The gap between the rich and poor has become wider. The gap between social classes is growing.

SARS reveals the inability of China's bureaucracy and medical establishment to effectively deal with an emergency, as well as the lack of medical care for disadvantaged social groups.

The crisis reflects the defects in the power of the Chinese state. The contemporary Chinese state possesses considerable despotic power but lacks the infrastructural power for building effecive institutions in society. What Taiwanese businesspeople in China admire about China's state elite is that they have the autonomous power to undertake actions without negotiations with civil-society groups.

However, China's state power lacks the capacity to actually penetrate society and implement political decisions.

The prerequisites for coping with SARS is closely linked to a modern country's capacity for building effective institutions. The reform of China's political system and related institutions is already far behind its economic reform. In the face of SARS, whether Hu and Wen will successfully bring China out of the quagmire will not only affect the prestige and credibility of the new generation of leaders. The leadership of Hu and Wen will also test the communist government's ability to change itself inside out and deal with a new phase of globalization.

* Chen Chih-jou is an assistant research fellow at Academia Sinica's Institute of Sociology. This article was published first on Taipei Times.

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