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China's leaders playing politics with health
Paul Lin

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`If one recalls that Mao Zedong frequently left Beijing for the provinces to give other leaders a chance to make mistakes before returning to punish them, then it isn't hard to guess the meaning of Jiang's seclusion in Shanghai and the muted reactions of his proteges ... on the matter of preventing SARS.'

Since severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) first appeared last November in Guangdong Province before spreading via Hong Kong to the rest of the world, officials at all levels in Beijing have been deceiving their own people and the outside world. The curtain was not lifted until after the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary, President Hu Jintao, met with Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa on April 12 in Shenzhen. Following that meeting, Hu went to Guang-zhou and publicly announced that he was "anxious" about this contagious disease.

Hu's recent tour to the south recalls Deng Xiaoping's southern tour in 1992. At that time, Deng had already retired from all of his posts. He had even handed the chairman's position at the Central Military Commission to former president Jiang Zemin. But Jiang perversely engaged in "opposition to peaceful evolution," and it became difficult for Deng to exercise his influence in Beijing. So Deng went to Guangdong and spoke to the rest of China, calling for reform and also declaring that anyone who didn't undertake reforms would have to step down.

The circumstances of Hu's recent tour to the south were very strange. He left Beijing on April 10 with the primary intent of understanding the SARS problem, but his first stop was in Zhanjiang. Only after that apparent feint did he double back to Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

Meanwhile, back in Beijing, Premier Wen Jiabao was still claiming on April 13 that the epidemic was under control and telling people not to worry about travelling. It isn't clear whether Wen was deliberately deceiving people or whether he was also kept in the dark about Hu's real reason for travelling to the south. After Hu had spoken out in the south, however, Wen immediately fell into step with the new line . This shows that they are still, at least, cooperating.

Since preventive measures came too late and the government's credibility is nil, it is understandable that people are fleeing Beijing in a panic and trying to stockpile supplies, even as relatively accurate statistics on death and infection emerge. The strange thing is that in confronting this major crisis of the post-Tiananmen era, only a few leaders are stepping forward to take action. On April 17, Hu presided over a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee to discuss the SARS problem, and he forbade under-reporting of the epidemic -- in a pointed response to the falsifications by military hospitals.

But of the Politburo Standing Committee members, only Hu and Wen have stepped into the foreground. The only other person to take a clear leadership position has been Vice Premier Wu Yi, who is not a member of the Standing Committee and is a relative political lightweight.

Jiang's trusted proteges, who are squatting on the Politburo Standing Committee, did not taken a stand, which added to the weird atmosphere. These people only reacted on April 25, and probably then under pressure. On that afternoon, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress met in small groups to review a SARS work report delivered by Wu Yi on behalf of the State Council. National People's Congress Standing Committee Chairman Wu Bangguo took part in the group discussions, but he was not reported to have stated any suggestions or opinions on the matter.

On the same day, Jiang's protege, Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin, also convened a meeting. And, that morning, the Central Committee Propaganda Department held a meeting to announce arrangements for publicity work related to SARS prevention. "Instruction" was provided by Politburo Standing Committee member Li Changchun, who is not one of Jiang's coterie.

And on April 20, the CCP announced that Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong had been stripped of their party duties. It would appear that this was also decided at the meeting on April 17. In the past when the CCP has launched large-scale movements, it has implemented drastic measures at lightning speed, but this anti-SARS campaign has been characterized by foot-dragging. Obviously someone is hindering it.

On this point, one inevitably wonders what Jiang is doing, given that he stepped down at the CCP's 16th National Congress but kept his post as Chairman of the Central Military Commission and still has the last word on major issues.

On April 21, Hu met with a delegation of US senators visiting Beijing headed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Given Jiang's love of the limelight and the great importance he attaches to Sino-US relations -- not to mention the fact that the senators had just come from Taiwan -- a meeting with Jiang should have been obligatory, but he never appeared.

On April 22, First Vice Chairman Cho Myong-rok of North Korea's National Defense Commission, visited Beijing. As chairman of the Central Military Commission, Jiang naturally should have met this soldier from an allied country, but once again he didn't appear. Where has Jiang gone?

In the April 24 edition of Hong Kong's Sing Tao Daily, a columnist by the name of Lu Jun wrote that on April 19, one of his friends was eating at a restaurant in Shanghai's Lilac Gardenwhen he saw Jiang and his wife Wang Yeping "strolling among the flowers," under the protection of bodyguards.

If one recalls that Mao Zedong frequently left Beijing for the provinces to give other leaders a chance to make mistakes before returning to punish them, then it isn't hard to guess the meaning of Jiang's seclusion in Shanghai and the muted reactions of his proteges such as Zeng Qinghong and Huang Ju on the matter of preventing SARS.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization can find no evidence of a cover-up in Shanghai, although medical personnel have revealed to Time magazine that there has indeed been one. Apparently, more sophisticated tactics have been used in Shanghai, and with Jiang personally taking charge, they have been bolder as well. Developments in the Politburo may ultimately take a shocking turn.

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.

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