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Hu uses SARS to tighten grip

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam, CNN Senior China Analyst

The SARS virus has killed nearly 300 people in China.
The SARS virus has killed nearly 300 people in China.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- There is more evidence that Chinese President Hu Jintao is moving fast to establish his authority through burnishing his liberal credentials.

Take, for example, the semi-official China News Service's (CNS) intriguing interview with whistle blower Dr. Jiang Yanyong last Thursday, which goes beyond official recognition of his contribution to fighting severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

It was the military physician who early last month tipped off the Western media that several People's Liberation Army (PLA) hospitals had suppressed information about hundreds of SARS cases.

Jiang's expose led indirectly to the sacking of then health minister Dr. Zhang Wenkang, a PLA major general who first gained prominence as a medical administrator in the army's General Logistics Department.

Chinese sources in Beijing said because of the controversial nature of Jiang, the CNS interview could not have been possible without the approval of the very top, meaning Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of propaganda Li Changchun -- and even Hu.

The sources said Hu and his colleagues might want to send two messages through this subtle affirmation of Jiang.

One was that the president wanted to weed out dead wood and assorted conservative elements in the PLA -- including those having close links with Central Military Commission Chairman and ex-president Jiang Zemin, a patron of Zhang's.

In the interview, which praised Dr. Jiang for telling the truth about SARS, CNS said the 72-year-old surgeon was leading a "normal life," thus implying that he had not been criticized or penalized for bad-mouthing the establishment.

This, however, contradicts the fact that soon after Dr. Jiang had talked to Western journalists, the PLA top brass circulated an army-wide document excoriating his "act of insubordination."

The party leadership's decision to, in Communist-Chinese parlance, "rehabilitate the reputation" of Dr. Jiang through the sympathetic CNS article amounts to a slap in the face of the PLA's conservative brass.

Equally significantly, Hu may be trying to gain the support of the Communist party's liberal wing by demonstrating a relatively conciliatory line on the June 4, 1989 crackdown.

It is known in dissident circles that Dr Jiang, who personally treated a number of Beijing residents injured in the massacre, has quietly lobbied to overturn the official verdict on the "counter-revolutionary turmoil."

A source close to the physician said he had recently authored statements asking Beijing to re-examine its decision to suppress the pro-democracy movement of 1989.

"The official media's positive assessment of Dr. Jiang's SARS-related work can be interpreted as a sign the Hu leadership may be willing to take a second look at the Tiananmen Square crackdown," the source said.

Moreover, he added, the Jiang episode was in line with the slightly improved treatment that the authorities had recently accorded noted dissidents such as Li Rui, who has also demanded an official reappraisal of the 1989 events.

Consolidating power

Beijing health officials were accused of covering-up the SARS outbreak.
Beijing health officials were accused of covering-up the SARS outbreak.

Analysts in Beijing said, however, that whether the Hu administration would go beyond hints and symbols -- and really go about liberalizing the political system -- depended on two factors.

One is whether the president can consolidate his power. The other is the party leadership's perception of whether bolder liberalization measures will undermine stability.

There is evidence that the 60-year-old supremo has craftily turned the anti-SARS movement into a campaign to build allegiance to himself.

A commentary in the People's Daily last Saturday argued that the fight against SARS would provide an opportunity to "inspect, assess and train" cadres.

The article, written by Zhong Zuwen -- a well-known pen-name for the party's Organization Department -- said one criterion for appraising officials was "whether they can identify their thinking with the spirit and demands of the party central authorities."

A source close to the Hu camp said the president had taken advantage of his SARS-related inspection trips to regions such as Guangdong and Sichuan provinces to buttress personal ties with important local chieftains.

"The bulk of the leaders of provinces and major cities owe their rise to former president Jiang as well as the latter's chief aide, Vice-President Zeng Qinghong," the source said.

"However, there are signs that quite a number of affiliates of the Jiang Zemin Faction are hedging their bets by indirectly professing loyalty to Hu."

Even assuming that Hu is successful in tightening his grip on the party and government, however, the president is not expected to push radical reforms that may hurt stability.

As the official Xinhua news agency pointed out in a commentary last week, SARS has highlighted the imperative of guaranteeing national security.

The piece said China must boost mechanisms to ensure that stability would not be jeopardized by unexpected events such as the pneumonia outbreak.

Ways and means that senior party cadres including Hu and allies such as Premier Wen Jiabao are pursuing to safeguard stability, however, may run counter to the requirements of political liberalization.

For example, the Propaganda Department, police as well as the Ministry of State Security are cracking down on publications, Web sites, as well as mobile phone text-messaging that are construed as "destabilizing."

It is true that the SARS onslaught has inspired rumor-mongering that is responsible for phenomena such as panic-buying of provisions and medicines in Beijing and other cities.

The authorities' anxiety to police the free flow of information, however, may deal a blow to the Chinese-style glasnost that the Hu-Wen team seems to be championing.

And the five-year jail term slapped earlier this month on underground webmaster Huang Qi for posting Internet articles on taboo subjects including the June 4 crackdown has cast doubt on the leadership's sincerity in relaxing its tough tactics against dissent.

The party leadership's obsession with national security may also fan the type of xenophobia that undercuts liberalization.

According to diplomatic sources in Beijing, senior scientists and military strategists are seriously studying allegations that the coronavirus behind SARS may have come from bio-chemical weapons laboratories in the United States.

This follows reports in internal Chinese documents that the first cases of atypical pneumonia might have been found in the U.S. early last year.

Moreover, the perception among some top cadres that the global furor over SARS is another manifestation of an "anti-China containment policy" will also deter efforts by the party's moderate faction to introduce "Western-style" reforms.

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