Subject: FW: Examining Asia: Betrayed by the Motherland

Examining Asia: Betrayed by the Motherland
By Hugo Restall
1,223 words
28 March 2003
The Asian Wall Street Journal  <javascript:NewWindow(


(Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
The whole world has reason to be angry with China over its mishandling of a
new form of viral pneumonia, which has now spread from the country's
Guangdong province to cities across Asia, Europe and North America. But
nobody has as much right to be angry as the residents of Hong Kong, who are
now paying a double price. Not only did mainland China's lies and deception
about the disease leave Hong Kong's health authorities unprepared to
a small outbreak from turning into an epidemic. But the city's
Chinese-imposed political leadership has also adopted a Beijing-style
approach to the problem and so hampered the ability of a competent civil

service and medical establishment to respond.
First, China's willful neglect of its own people. Health authorities in

Kong were blindsided when a new form of atypical pneumonia crossed the
border last month at a time when the official word from the mainland was
that the outbreak had been successfully contained. We now know this was a
lie. At the very time officials were dismissing fears, the number of cases
in Guangdong was reaching a peak. In the last few days China has started to
come clean, suddenly revising the total number of cases upward by 160%
without explanation.
Had Hong Kong's doctors known the truth, they might have handled early
with more caution. It was a stroke of luck that the index patient who

brought the disease to the city was a medical professor who was able to
his doctors that he had likely contracted the new disease from his own
patients in China. Unfortunately, these doctors did not take adequate

precautions when treating him and other patients with similar symptoms. The
lack of awareness about what was happening in China was clearly a
contributing factor to this mistake.
Yesterday, 17 days after the crisis started, Hong Kong announced stringent
public health measures to combat the spread of the disease. Those who have
had intimate contact with victims will be quarantined, all schools will be
closed and new cases will be sent to a designated hospital.
All of this should have been done days ago. Yesterday the number of new
cases jumped to 51, up from 29 the day before. The opportunity to contain

the outbreak while it was still small has been lost. The economic cost of
this will run into the billions of dollars. Foreign tourist bookings for
Hong Kong are down 30% and falling; all manner of events are being
cancelled, including concerts by the Rolling Stones.
In his first public remarks on the subject yesterday, Chief Executive Tung

Chee Hwa tried to deflect criticism by pointing to progress made by medical
researchers in identifying the virus causing the disease and developing a
diagnostic test. First he boasted that researchers accomplished this feat
much faster than in the case of AIDS, where it took years to identify the
virus. Then he suggested that public health measures had to wait until
the virus was identified. But after the AIDS epidemic began, campaigns to

encourage safe sex didn't wait until the HIV virus was identified. Why did
Hong Kong wait to warn its citizens?
The answer is that inexperienced political leaders thought first not of
public health, but of the economic and social harm that might be caused by
panic. This is exactly the same response as China's leaders, who also tried

to deny that there is a crisis. At first, Hong Kong's Secretary for Health,
Welfare and Food Dr. Yeoh Eng-kiong wouldn't call the cases an outbreak,
when they already merited the term. Then he wouldn't call the situation a
crisis and claimed that the virus wasn't spreading in the community, even
senior doctors were contradicting him on both counts.
When criticized for this in the legislature Wednesday, Dr. Yeoh staged a

temper tantrum much like when then Chinese President Jiang Zemin attacked
the Hong Kong media three years ago. Pounding on the desk, he yelled that
his critics were "irresponsible" and "sowing discord." In typical mainland
Chinese fashion, he shifted the focus by calling for everyone to work
together to fight the disease and not look to cast blame. Mr. Tung echoed
his words again yesterday, saying, "Every one of us has the responsibility
to take part in this battle against the disease, and we have to work

together in order to overcome this epidemic."
But the footsoldiers in this battle don't have any leadership, and the
public has a right to more than just platitudes about pulling together for
the motherland. Mr. Tung and his officials actually blamed the public for
not following the recommendations of the Department of Health and said this
made the quarantine measures necessary. But there hasn't yet been a

to publicize these recommendations. Many people are wearing masks because
they see pictures of doctors wearing masks, but not many know that
frequently washing hands and avoiding touching their eyes and mouth are
perhaps even more important precautions.
The last time Hong Kong faced such a crisis was in late 1997, when a new
deadly strain of influenze started spreading from chickens to humans.

Fortunately, after a period of dithering within the government, top civil
servant Anson Chan put the proper emphasis on public health and pushed for
decisive action -- slaughtering the millions of chickens raised within the
city. That seemed to many people at the time too drastic, but it put an end
to the problem, and with hindsight most experts agree it was the right


Today Hong Kong is led by an unaccountable chief executive appointed by
Beijing, Mr. Tung, who even his supporters now agree has little talent for
government. Moreover, in the last year he has modified the civil service
system to bring in a group of his cronies as "policy secretaries." The
result has been a string of blunders, including a stock market crash, a
scandal over the financial secretary benefiting from insider information

now a pneumonia epidemic. All these storms arose because the new officials
took a high-handed attitude toward the civil servants who advise them, the
legislators who question them and the general public.
Hong Kong is still highly transparent, simply because aspects of the

British-designed machinery of government work on autopilot generating
statistics and press releases. But the decision-making stratum has become,
well, communist. Anyone who asks officials to be accountable for their
failures is sowing divisiveness, i.e. is an enemy of the people. The people
need to be protected from the truth, like Mao's peasants who were kept poor
and blank. In terms of political culture, this could be any large Chinese
The World Health Organization has tactfully expressed its frustration with
the failure of China and Hong Kong to contain the new strain of pneumonia.
At least in Hong Kong's case, that failure was less a failure of medical

expertise; it was largely a political failure. From an unaccountable and
unresponsive government like China's, the world almost expects such
mistakes. Hong Kong's people naively thought they would get better

from their new sovereign. Sadly, they have been betrayed.
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