ASEAN summit and China's case

Print edition : May 23, 2003
in Singapore

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.-CHAIWAT SUBPRASOM/AFP

CHINA'S new Prime Minister Wen Jiabao played the statesman at an extraordinary summit in Bangkok on April 29. It was a meeting of political leaders on a non-political issue - the new scourge of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. China, by far the worst victim of this much-feared disease, was invited by Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to attend the emergency summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), hosted by the latter.

China's presence at what was the first international conference on SARS, proved extremely beneficial to the participating countries, especially in terms of strengthening the political will of the leaders to contain the epidemic through concerted action. Despite the fact that many people tended to blame China for having been either lackadaisical or even "irresponsible" in the face of a serious epidemic, Wen succeeded in convincing the participants otherwise.

The main grouse against Beijing in South East Asia was that the Communist Party of China (CPC) had "suppressed'' the news of the SARS outbreak as far back as November last year. Then known as "atypical pneumonia'', the disease, which broke out in one of China's southern provinces, did not suit the CPC's political image, even as it organised leadership changes in a transparent manner at that time.

The story that did the rounds in South East Asia was that China, therefore, swept the news of the disease under the impressive carpets of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. With the World Health Organisation (WHO), too, indicating its sense of frustration over China's initial response to the SARS outbreak, ASEAN's concerns about Beijing were indeed real.

It was in this context that Thaksin chose to invite Wen to the Bangkok meet. Wen impressed ASEAN leaders with his no-nonsense approach, but contrary to the expectations of some members, he did not "apologise" formally for China's acts of omission. By then, China had placed itself on a fast track to combat the disease. Prior to the summit itself, China had wielded the political axe in the battle against SARS by stripping Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong of their significant positions in the CPC hierarchy. Zhang, in particular, had come in for international criticism for having asserted that the SARS situation was under control in China. A day earlier, an official of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) died of the disease in China. Political `pundits' in South-East Asia seized upon these developments to spread the story that there was a continuing `power struggle' between the new Chinese team, consisting of Hu Jintao as the country's President and CPC General Secretary, besides Wen himself, and Jiang Zemin in his capacity as the new elder statesman. Providing fodder to such theories was the perception that Zhang and Meng belonged to "rival camps''.

Against this regional backdrop, China's Vice-Premier Wu Yi was entrusted with the additional charge of Health. Wen's task at the ASEAN-China summit was to ensure that the Chinese position carried conviction. He had little or no difficulty in winning the confidence of the ASEAN. He had adopted a hands-on approach at home by visiting SARS-designated hospitals and by calling on people at their homes and students, including foreigners, in universities to reassure them of the Chinese government's determination to fight the disease.

In Bangkok, Wen briefed the ASEAN leaders on the various measures being taken by Beijing. He announced that China would contribute 10 million yuan (over $1 million) towards a China-ASEAN Fund to contain and roll back the SARS epidemic. The other decisions that were taken at the summit included the one relating to "open borders'' across the SARS-afflicted belt in the region. Common or compatible measures to check the health of travellers within and across these countries would be evolved for gradual adoption in May.

Another political "fallout'' of the SARS crisis is the unproven theory that the "killer virus'' might have "accidentally'' escaped into the atmosphere during some "bio-weapon testing'' by China in November last year. However, the lack of credible scientific evidence apart, leaders and officials of several countries - India, the United States, France, Japan and the two Koreas - have engaged the Chinese interlocutors in China itself at this psychologically sensitive time. This amounts to an enormous vote of confidence in Beijing, in contrast with ASEAN's more circumspect attitude. Some even suspect that the unproven "bio-weapon'' theory is actually a revival of the racist "yellow peril'' hypothesis that is traced to Joseph Arthur Gobineau, a 19th century French scholar.

On the medical front itself, the worst-hit East Asian countries and territories - China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan - have resorted to home quarantines of those suspected of having been in contact with confirmed or probable SARS patients. China has not only said that it has identified "corona virus'' as the SARS-causing agent, but also announced plans to step up research to contain the disease and evolve a vaccine. "Isolation'' of the patients and "containment'' are, on the whole, the medical practice followed in these places.

Going beyond these measures, Singapore has enacted a stringent anti-SARS law (in effect, an expansion of the existing Infectious Disease Act). The idea is to impose deterrent fines and/or jail terms, which many in South-East Asia see as a "draconian'' measure, on quarantine-breakers and others who might, despite being "infected", mingle with people in public places. At least one Member of Parliament in Singapore, a medical professional, has called for more "draconian'' measures. The authorities in the city-state were, by early May, fine-tuning a hard-sell campaign to convince people that such responses were needed in a small place where public health could, if not handled properly, become a virtual security concern.

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