SARS and the Leadership Struggle in China

May 7, 2003

SARS and the Leadership Struggle in China

 In China , the initial SARS' cover-up, resulting in the dismissal of numerous Chinese officials and the outbreak of riots, has brought to light two primary truths.


In China , the initial SARS' cover-up, resulting in the dismissal of numerous Chinese officials and the outbreak of riots, has brought to light two primary truths. First, President Hu Jintao is embroiled in a struggle for national stability and leadership that will either secure his legitimacy or disgrace him. Second, China 's disjointed system of power distribution and transition, where the new leader must co-exist with his predecessor, leaves the country open to confusion during a crisis.

Unlike western democracies-where the transition of position and power are simultaneous- in China 's political system this transfer is time consuming and arduous. For example, during the twilight of his years (until his death in 1998), a stocky, battle-hardened revolutionary named Deng Xiaoping retained unquestioned power, yet officially held only the position of president of the Chinese chess association. For over half a decade Jiang Zemin held the positions of power in China, yet took his cues from Deng; deferring to the revered leader on the most fundamental issues.   

Currently, Jiang Zemin , China 's former president and general secretary, is also attempting to maintain his influence. Several months ago, Hu Jintao, a technocrat relatively unknown to the West, became China 's head of state and head of the Chinese Communist Party.  And while many predicted Hu's difficult struggle to gain supremacy, indeed the SARS epidemic gave the populist Mr. Hu the opening he needed to begin to market his own brand of Chinese leadership.  

At China 's elite universities students are excited and anxious for what they see as the liberal tendencies of Mr. Hu.  In chat rooms a new slogan has appeared: "Keep it up, Brother Hu." And at Jiang Zemin's alma mater, Shanghai Jiaotong University , Ms. Wang, a reform minded student, was quoted as saying, "We need to show our support for Hu Jintao, because if he becomes weak…many of the reforms we are hoping for will not have a chance to grow."

Yet, Hu faces threats from many sides.  Not only are his political competitors (many of whom are Mr. Jiang's associates) waiting to assert or reassert influence, but over recent weeks the threat of instability in China 's rural regions has become a major concern.  

Ignoring the central government's travel ban, thousands of Beijing 's migrant workers have returned home and not surprisingly SARS is hitching a ride with them.  Compounding SARS' fears, the closing of construction projects and retail businesses have left thousands jobless and with few choices.  

In part due to the China 's lack of political freedom, economic development and Party-centric nationalism have become Beijing 's guarantor of social stability.  Unfortunately, SARS has effected both the investment and production side of the Chinese economic structure. Although in the long run most analysts believe China 's economy will recover, currently, falling foreign investment and business closings caused by the epidemic have acted as a catalyst for already disgruntled workers' malcontent.  Experts claim China needs a minimum growth rate of 7 percent per year in order to absorb recent graduates and laid-off workers into the job market. Unfortunately, at present this benchmark of domestic stability appears unobtainable.  

In a world that changes in seconds, the Chinese system has proven especially ineffective at crisis management. The disturbing fact is that few people know Hu is the man to call first. China 's arduous power transition has left one man, former President Jiang Zemin, as commander-in-chief of the military and another, current President Hu Jintao, as head of the government and the Party.  

Indeed, Russian President Vladamir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi--leaders of two major powers bordering China --still are unsure who is in command; after the recent tragic submarine disaster, they sent condolence messages to both current President Hu and former President Jiang.   

This has caused great confusion within the local civilian leadership since when they must make a decision many cadres are still unclear as to the real voice of import. As a result, many high level bureaucrats have aligned themselves with either Mr. Jiang or Mr. Hu. China 's officials must dedicate large blocks of time and energy to deciding how to act and what to say in a winner take all game of cat and mouse.  Rather than working to solve the country's fundamental problems, political strategizing and dealing are a major distraction for China 's leadership.  Many are pulled in opposite directions and rather than make a mistake that may cost their career, they do nothing.   

SARS is the perfect example. For many lower level officials and cadres, to act decisively would have been too politically risky.  It was better to let the top leadership develop the strategy and then once a clear path had been drawn, implement it. Over the last few months local officials have received a plethora of opposing instructions.  At first asked to cover-up the virus, local party cadres now face termination if they fail to report any aspect of the disease's spread.  

China 's pseudo-Leninist structure of government is based on the bottom's adherence to the polices of the top. Indeed, in the comparatively slow moving world of early 20th century politics this may have been effective. But now the standard wisdom of Chinese politics, wait and smile and comfort the people's concerns in any way possible and then do as you are told, cannot keep up with the times.   

Unfortunately, in a crisis situation waiting can prove more damaging then the crisis itself.  In the case of the EP-3 collision with a Chinese fighter jet in 2001 it took weeks for the Chinese to appropriately respond. The military and civilian leadership were confused, each unsure of the others role.  In the end, even though at the time Mr. Jiang controlled all three primary posts, it took almost three weeks for the American crew to be returned home, with every hour that passed further damaging the Sino-American relationship.   

But now out of the ashes of China 's latest debacle, the SARS epidemic, has risen a leader for the next decade.  

In recent weeks, visiting hospitals and speaking with health care officials in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Hu has employed a new brand of populism.  He has criticized the official media for its focus on the Chinese leadership rather than issues of critical importance. Hu even demanded health officials confront the SARS issue with honesty and explicitly warned against a cover-up. Zhang Wenkang , China 's former health minister and Jiang protegee, displayed these differences when he claimed the SARS epidemic was under control-only to be contradicted by Mr. Hu that same week, and later sacked. Actions like these were unheard of during the tenure of President Jiang.  

They provide the impetus for the free dissemination of information crucial for China to effectively confront SARS and future crises. As one reform-minded senior official explained, "This is the beginning of the end. This is the spark (we) have been waiting for."  

Some reformers are pointing to the Chinese government's admission that 70 seamen died in a tragic submarine accident as proof of Hu's growing political strength.  The event was kept quiet for two weeks before growing pressure from President Hu and the new leadership pushed Mr. Jiang to speak candidly on the issue.  While consoling the victims families Mr. Hu came as close as any Chinese leader ever has to placing blame, and thus pressure, on the military and its leader Mr. Jiang: "The Navy should draw careful lessons from the accident." Hu said.  

Thus, as Hu Jintao's headlines role into newsstands, Jiang Zemin's influence wanes. And in a twist of irony, the very crisis that China's leadership was so unprepared to meet has provided the world a sneak peak into the style and capabilities of a soft-spoken technocrat who is staking his claim as the most powerful man in China.


Joshua Eisenman is the Assistant Director of China Studies at The Nixon Center (