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HONG KONG — An ugly new strain of atypical pneumonia has medical scientists working overtime in their research laboratories across the world, as they strive to discover why a growing number of patients are now suffering and dying in many nations from this previously unknown virus that is being blamed for the death of at least 53 people.

As the global media indulge their obsession on what many world citizens perceive to be imperialistic American aggression against Iraq, too few — even here in Hong Kong — have paid sufficient attention to what could so easily have become a form of indirect Chinese aggression against humanity through systemic incompetence.

The situation brings to mind a highly charged debate within Hong Kong in the mid-1980s. An anxious still-British Hong Kong was just getting used to its future fate of being returned to China. The horrendous meltdown at Chernobyl in the the Soviet Union was at that time only a recent memory. China announced plans for a nuclear power station to be constructed by China at Daya Bay, 52 km northwest of Hong Kong.

It is easy today to forget the traumatic worries that the original proposal aroused. Essentially, the debates and the emotions centered on the reliability of China’s crisis management.

If there was a nuclear meltdown at Daya Bay, how would the Chinese officials react? Would they quickly warn Hong Kong? Or would they respond in the time-honored way of refusing to admit bad news, so that in the end, the bad news becomes much worse?

The project was ultimately placed on a sounder footing. The critics may have been wrong in forecasting gloom and doom, but they were accurate in anticipating how China might fail to confront a crisis.

This possible pattern of crisis mismanagement has been vividly illustrated in the last four months. China has not been functioning in the way that a country which aspires to be a great and powerful nation is supposed to do.

First, the contrast between how Hong Kong and China handle crises needs to be noted.

Despite fears to the contrary, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China is still working the way it is supposed to. News of the recent outbreak of a new “mystery illness” was relatively quickly and freely reported. Those officials and private practitioners in positions of responsibility for the community’s health were likewise free to comment upon the perceived threat, once the generic threat of the ironically-named SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, was identified.

Local and international warnings were promptly issued, guidance to citizens quickly provided, necessary international contacts quickly made, notably with the World Health Organization (WHO). Overall, anxiety was reduced because this potentially grave health scare proceeded amid freedom of information.

In China, news of the mystery illness was quickly and efficiently suppressed when the first known cases arose in the Guangdong city of Foshan in the middle of last November. Officials did not comment publicly on the possible threat, and nonofficials naturally followed suit, even when more outbreaks took place.

Hushing up media

Public warnings were not speedily and repeatedly issued. Yet, while guidance to citizens was not provided, newspapers as far away as Shanghai and Shenzhen were ordered not to report on the illness. It took a disgraceful three months before the Guangdong authorities finally admitted at a press conference that 305 people had been affected by the unknown disease, and that five had died.

Worst of all, necessary international contacts were not quickly made, a scandalous act of negligence. It took four months before China very belatedly started something akin to the imperative flow of information between it and the WHO. An earlier WHO delegation visited Beijing, but was not able to proceed to Guangdong.

Of course, there was no sensationalism in the controlled Chinese media, which obediently avoided the topic altogether. But what greatly increased anxiety within Guangdong, and even farther afield within China, was that an obvious health scare was sensationalized by the absence of freedom of information.

Long before that overdue first press conference was held, text messages on mobile phones were spreading panic that a new flu pandemic had arrived. As always happens in nations where freedom of information does not exist, ordinary Chinese fell back on unreliable rumors as a remedy for their state-imposed ignorance.

It is apparent that the Chinese system had worked in a perilous way. A potential threat to the health of humanity, instead of being quickly snuffed out, was possibly made far more dangerous because China did not straight away open up to the outside world, as well as to itself.

The terrible pandemics in 1918 and 1919, when many more human beings died than had been killed in the massive slaughter of World War I, need not reoccur today, given modern medical science, modern drugs, and modern standards of hospital care. The hard fact remains that any unknown bacteria or virus, which causes unexpected deaths, need to be caught, analyzed and then diagnosed as quickly as possible if modern-day epidemics or pandemics are to be avoided in this overcrowded and highly interconnected planet.

Left undetected, as has happened in China recently, the microbe could easily cause hundreds of thousands of casualties worldwide. The bureaucracy in southern China, and presumably part of the national bureaucracy in Beijing, has just acted as if it was unaware of this grim reality.

State of denial

In still another evidence of incompetence, from mid-November onward, Chinese officialdom tried to pretend for too long that there was no emerging health crisis. This was understandable since, at the time of the first Foshan outbreak of the unknown disease, even the lowliest Guangdong official would have known better than to report potentially bad news just as the Chinese Communist Party was winding up its 16th Party Congress.

It was also understandable that official reticence, plus consequent inaction, should continue as the internal transfer of power proceeded at the highest levels, and the National People’s Congress took place.

Of course, it should have been possible for some members of the Guangdong administration to deal with the emerging medical crisis expeditiously and scientifically. Had they done so, it would have meant, for example, that the doctor from Guangdong, who evidently started the present chain of death and infection in Hong Kong by infecting others, would not have left home.

Doctors in Guangdong Province would have known better than to treat patients suffering from the officially unrecognized disease merely with traditional herbs. Ordinary Chinese would not have wasted their money buying up large amounts of vinegar in the vain belief that it would kill viruses and bacteria.

But the proper handling of the crisis required that some responsible officials stick their necks out. The reality has been that those who should have known what needed to be done too often preferred to do nothing.

It was not merely a case of reality being avoided. Reality was also invented. One official, around the time of that first press conference in February, blandly insisted that everything was under control, that there was no cause for alarm. He was either totally incompetent or blatantly telling lies. But still he used the power of his office to convey a false image of optimism to the controlled press.

The failure of Chinese crisis-management went even deeper than that. This is not just a case of China being irresponsible to itself. In an astonishing display of China’s Middle Kingdom complex, it has also been unwilling to be fully responsible to the rest of humanity.

What is also amazing is that the outside world, to which China has declined to be up front on this vital matter, has been so tentative and deferential in its reactions. Yet unless China’s obvious shortcomings are firmly and repeatedly criticized, this potentially dangerous chain of Chinese cause and effect can happen again and again.

There are, as ever, many threats to humanity. America’s self-centered arrogance as it looks toward the future is one.

China’s self-centered arrogance, as it sustains past habits, plus its deep-seated suspicion of free intercourse with the outside world, is another. One day, if not now, it could foster a horrendous pandemic.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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