The Forbidden City's Disease

The date was June 5, 1989. I was standing in front of the Chinese Embassy on NW Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. Jesse Jackson and his entourage had left, and with him, so had the media hordes who cared what he had to say.

I had been there helping to provide translation for the hundreds of Chinese citizens -- mostly students studying in America -- who had gathered in front of the embassy to voice their outrage at the slaughter apparently unfolding 11,000 miles away in Tiananmen Square. Students who had defied Communist Chinese authorities for weeks by camping in the huge square to demand reform were in the process of being massacred by Red Army soldiers brought in from outside Beijing for the purpose.

The cameras flocked to the publicity-seeking Jackson, who may or may not have been able to find China on a map but parachuted in to voice his risk-free, cost-free outrage. Meanwhile, it was the students watching the media watching Jackson who were showing unspeakable bravery by their presence. By gathering, with each person's face fully visible, in front of Washington's Chinese embassy and the cameras in its windows, these elite students were risking their future, their lives, perhaps the futures and the lives of their families back home -- an act of pure courage and defiance almost entirely unrecognized by the cameramen or passing motorists.

As the vigil settled in, I talked with some of the students, and listened to the stories -- of faculty members and other invisible dissenters who had quietly laid the groundwork for that moment -- some since Mao's death and the Gang of Four in 1976, some since the Cultural Revolution in 1968, some since the Great Leap Forward 30 years previous. They had patiently been working for years for greater openness and freedom, in a climate where millions perished in the government's campaigns of terror. I listened to the stories of this generation of students, risking everything on behalf of those to come. Fatuous media reports to the contrary, the struggle was never for Western- style democracy; it was for greater accountability and openness, but with a system, perhaps socialist, that still provided the social guarantees and paternalism of the Communists. But most striking, mixed with the anger and anguish, were the stories of the future: the quiet certitude that in another 10 years, another 20 -- a few minutes in the historic cycles of a continuous, 5,000-year-old culture -- the next moment would come. Change, and freedom, would come.

Fast forward to today, 2003, and a mystifying new disease is providing a glimpse into our new century -- not just how epidemics will leap continents, but how no country's leaders, even China's, will be able to either control their economy or their people.

As global pandemics go, severe acute respiratory syndrome -- SARS -- is still inconsequential. Only about 3,800 cases, and about 200 deaths, have been reported worldwide thus far. But SARS is new, its origins and transmission mechanisms unclear, a vaccine or cure nonexistent, and sometimes it kills. And so its impact on China, where it has originated, had already been enormous before the stunning apology and admission by Party leaders yesterday that SARS was ten times more prevalent than China's government had previously admitted -- an announcement accompanied by the unprecedented sacking of the Minister of Health and of Beijing's mayor, an enormously prestigious post.

China's Communist leaders have a 54-year tradition of burying reality in an avalanche of Party exhortations, slogans, and descriptions of events barely (and always highly optimistically) related to what actually happened. I earned my antipathy to both Communism and to government euphemisms -- including America's -- by spending entire graduate school months holed up in a library, translating discrepancies in accounts of provincial Chinese economic experiments from Mandarin Newspeak to Mandarin to English.

Over two decades later, the Xinhua News Agency is unchanged. The world, however, has changed a bit, and damning information can no longer be kept secret, even by China's Communists. For weeks, World Health Organization and other international health officials have contended that SARS was far more widespread in China than the Party had admitted, and that it was not -- contrary to the statement earlier this month by now-deposed Health Minister Zhang Wenkang -- "effectively controlled" in the country of its origin. The ouster of Zhang, whose patron is still-powerful ex-President Jiang Zemin, hints at higher-level repercussions, still unknown, probably within the Politburo itself. So does the dismissal of Meng Xuenong, recently elevated to Mayor of Beijing -- a post often used to groom future party leaders.

While WHO and other foreign authorities could speculate and scoff all they liked, Zhang and Meng had to go because ordinary Chinese were also starting to find out about the true extent of SARS -- spreading information through text messages on their cell phones. Mao, not to mention Stalin, would be terrified. As is, the apology and admission of past lies, by a government that routinely rewrites history to paint itself as perfect, is virtually unprecedented.

More immediately astonishing and important to the average person in China, was an accompanying government announcement Sunday that it has cancelled Golden Week. Thus far, the spread of SARS has been mostly confined to China's major cities. But the first week of May is one of China's most important annual holidays, when people return to their home towns and families for what is, in essence, a family reunion. There are equivalent holidays in other East Asian countries as well -- all of them major events in cultures where one's family is traditionally considered not only central to one's life, but the primary way in which individuals define themselves.

China's economic modernization has been heavily concentrated in its cities, especially on the coast; jobless rural areas have felt few of the benefits of China's rapid economic growth of recent years. The resulting, massive rural- to-urban migration, and the creation of a class of 100 million migrant workers, meant that tens of millions were expected to travel during Golden Week. The holiday travel would have virtually guaranteed the transmission of SARS into China's largely poor (and partially tropical and subtropical) outback, where the impact would be devastating. The extreme measure of cancellation (imagine the White House canceling Christmas and New Year's holiday vacations) suggests near-panic in Beijing. Given that, for example, Shanghai authorities still have acknowledged only two confirmed cases, SARS may be even more widespread, and its containment prospects even more dire, than authorities are now letting on.

Golden Week cancellation is also extreme because of the money the week's travel and gift-giving annually put into China's economy. With the disease being concentrated in urban areas, where the airports, seaports, and foreign enterprise zones are concentrated, the Chinese economy has already been badly hurt in recent weeks by the loss of international travel and corporate influx due to fear of SARS.

SARS is a glimpse at how an ever-increasing number of newly mutated microorganisms -- most, but not all, benign -- will spread around the globe in our new century. Thus far, the most concentrated outbreak of SARS outside China has not been in a neighboring country like Korea or Japan. It's been in halfway around the world, in Toronto, Canada, with a dozen deaths. The ability of new maladies to skip oceans and continents, exploiting enormous disparities among different countries' public health infrastructures, suddenly appearing in places where they may be more virulent or contagious, is one of the new nightmares facing the world's epidemiologists.

But SARS is also a window into the new interconnectedness of the world's economy. Cancellation of Golden Week isn't simply a domestic story about Chinese vacations; the impact will be felt in every country in the world, including ours. As the United States' moribund economy sagged in 2001 and 2002, so has the world's. The only significant exception has been China, which has continued its explosive growth, fueled by international investment and corporations eager to build sweatshops with China's boundless, forcibly compliant labor force.

The genius of China's Communists in the last two decades has been to reverse Mao-era isolationism and incorporate China's economy into the world's while still repressing the masses and maintaining an iron grip on political control. The Chinese Communists are every bit the murderous butchers they were during the Cold War. It's been grimly amusing to watch the resulting schizophrenia of Washington's Republicans -- now encircling Red China with weaponry and bases to goad a new arms race, yelping (rightly) about its repression of religious minorities, while at the same time creating the structure that increasingly leaves our two countries' economies interdependent. Its consumer goods are ubiquitous; soon, its manufactured goods will be, too. China's impact on the U.S. economy still lags far behind that of trading partners like Japan, Europe, and Canada -- but in another generation, it won't.

However, given the current state of the global economy, the impact of China's troubles is much greater than usual. China's U.S.-backed entry last year into the World Trade Organization opened new floodgates for corporate investment. The SARS scare has extinguished, at least for the time being, the one bright spot in the global economy. Combined with continuing political and trade uncertainty triggered (literally) by Bush's unprovoked invasion of Iraq, Sunday's SARS revelations and the unfolding epidemic will be felt in every major stock exchange in the world.

SARS may or may not turn out to be a major global health event. But one day, probably soon, such a health event is coming. No country, including the U.S., now has the freedom of choice in economic policy necessary to protect itself from unfolding calamity elsewhere. Serious, contagious mystery ailments are only one of the countless scenarios illustrating the vulnerability of the corporate-friendly structure the United States has put in place to manage a globally connected economy. Security concerns caused by rampant, virulent anti-Americanism are another.

Meanwhile, back in the Forbidden City, freedom's advocates are still waiting, and planning. The students of 1989 are now pushing 40 or older, quietly moving into positions of influence in the world's most populous country. With new technologies that enable information and ideas to leap oceans as freely as microorganism now can, our new century may not turn out to be a good one for tyrants -- capitalist or Communist -- after all.


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