What we can learn about China’s SARS epidemic experience


Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), that unfamiliar epidemic, is threatening to stagnate economic exchange between Japan and China, commensurate with its rapid transmission. The disease has also affected me personally, as I am actively engaged in Japan-China economic and academic exchange.

Until the end of March, I was entirely oblivious to that fact that the acronym “SARS” was pronounced sars. In fact, I lead a group of 30 business executives in mid-March on a visit to Toyota Motor Corporation and other Japanese-affiliated firms in Beijing and Tientsin. I continued alone to Hong Kong and Taipei before returning home to Japan. At that time, Hong Kong airport was already quiet. After two days, I returned once again to China and visited Beijing and Inner Mongolia. Unaware of the dangers, for two weeks I ventured into territory where the SARS epidemic is now running riot.

Upon my return to Japan, I received a phone call from my good friend who is head of the Finance Department of the Japanese Consulate-General in Hong Kong. He said to me: “When you came to Hong Kong from Beijing on March 21st, weren’t you a passenger on flight CA 111? One of the passengers is now in a serious condition having developed SARS and consequently we are tracking down all the remaining passengers who boarded the same flight.” The SARS incubation period is 10 days and although I felt in good health, suddenly SARS seemed closer to home. I was allowed to visit Beijing because the Chinese Government Cat least until April 20th, concealed the real figure of infection and death due to SARS, which was actually 9 times higher. On account of this lack of warning, I could visit China.

On March 25th, the entire second year of the Faculty of Modern Chinese Studies (190 students) in Aichi University, where I currently hold a position, were sent back from Nankai University in Tientsin on a chartered Japan Airlines (JAL) flight. One of the outstanding features of my faculty is that in the spring semester of the second year, it is mandatory for students to attend Nankai University as a foreign exchange student. This program was set up in order to give students an opportunity to improve their language ability and knowledge of Chinese culture. Out of necessity the repatriated students had to continue their studies in Japan with the dozen or so teachers who were invited back from Nankai University. In addition, I was due to spend one month at Nankai University to supervise the students, however that was also cancelled. Furthermore, the economic study group visits I would have lead in May and July were postponed until after September.

According to current statistics released by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 11th, the amount of those infected with SARS has increased to 7,296 and the number of attributed deaths has rose to 526. The rapid spread of SARS in China is illustrated by the fact that more than half of all those infected and whom have died, 4948 and 240 respectively, are found on the Chinese mainland, and in addition to this 1,678 and 215 respectively are in Hong Kong.

Contributing factors as to why a contagion of such great magnitude developed are the absence of an early response system and swiftness of action by the Chinese Government, the lack of openness and the absence of uniformity in the Chinese system. Therefore what can we learn from this experience?

Firstly we know that there is a tendency for the Chinese administration to conceal facts. One can draw parallels in this instance with the administrative bodies of Japan in dealing with the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) problem. However, in this case, China was slow in reporting the epidemic to the WHO and as ever was vulnerable to the resourcefulness of international cooperation on data gathering. In my view, it is essential for China to increase the degree of transparency of information and to adopt a common position on matters.

Secondly, the SARS case indicates China’s lack of ability to recognize the importance of facts and the tardiness of their response to the problem. This reflects the low quality of administrative bodies and their personnel in China. Despite government emphasis on cooperation regarding the role of businesses in the market economy, the SARS case brings into question the effectiveness of the government as the actor exercising macro-control.

The third indication, and one that is not a new phenomenon, is that SARS exposed the defectiveness of compartmentalized public administration. In addition it is clear that military and general administrative bodies in China function independently from each other, that there is little contact between each administrative body, and that there is minimal cooperation between the central and local level.

Modernization not only requires a trend towards a market economy and technological advances, but also an effective administrative system, increased movement towards a service economy and heightened transparency. Furthermore, dirty toilets and the absence of custom to wash hands indicates a lack of hygienic practice in China. The SARS epidemic provides China with the perfect opportunity to reformulate its thoughts on modernization.

[Translated by ERINA]