Article taken from The Straits TImes China forced to face bad news After five months of covering up its Sars problem for political reasons, it has finally given in to international pressure By Ching Cheong HONGKONG - China has finally been forced by international pressure to change its attitude and cooperate with the international community's efforts to contain the spread of Sars. By the time President Hu Jintao urged full-scale cooperation with the World Health Organisation (WHO), five months had passed since the Sars outbreak erupted in Guangdong last November. And after Premier Wen Jiabao made it the first item on the agenda of a recent State Council meeting to discuss the main tasks of the Cabinet this year, approval was at last given for WHO officials to carry out investigations in the stricken province. 'These are very positive steps taken by China,' said Dr David Heymann, executive director of communicable diseases at WHO. Unfortunately, in the time it has taken China to act, Sars has gone global, with numbers of sick and dead rising. Between Nov 1 and yesterday, there has been a total of 2,600 cases across the world and 90 people have died. More than four out of five deaths worldwide have occurred in Guangdong and its southern neighbour, Hongkong. All this might have been different if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had adopted a more responsible attitude towards dealing with the outbreak. The CCP Central Secretariat issued a circular to the Chinese official media in October, outlining how it could help maintain a stable and secure environment, to ensure the party's 16th congress last November would be held successfully. The circular included a list of 'Dos and Don'ts', including an item on dealing with the possible spread of flu. A source with access to the document told The Straits Times that it said: 'Every year between winter and spring, there will be a high incidence of flu and pneumonia in China.' Apart from dismissing any outbreak as nothing more than the usual bout of seasonal illness, the circular urged the media to avoid running 'negative news'. Such news included unemployment, social unrest, the Falungong and accidents involving many casualties. Party secretaries at various levels were warned that they would be held accountable should such bad news break out in their areas. The circular suggests that the CCP was fully aware of the possible spread of illness, but decided that the party image had to come first. Instead of sounding the alert, the official media were directed towards avoiding news that might mar the party congress. Other mistakes, equally avoidable, followed. When the Guangdong outbreak began to get out of control and was reported in Hongkong, the Chinese accused the media there of scaremongering. Mr Long Yongtu, China's chief negotiator in its efforts to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), criticised the Hongkong media openly for 'excessive coverage' that would frighten off foreign investors. After the long and difficult experience of WTO negotiations, he was one of China's few officials to have a grasp of the norms and expectations of the international community. Yet, when it came to the outbreak of an unusual killer disease, he also wanted the media to play it down. The result was that instead of initiating action to deal with the disease, China politicised the issue and erected a barricade in self-defence. It claimed that the WHO's requests to do field work in Guangdong, as well as identifying the province as the source of Sars, were politically motivated. A Ministry of Health official even threatened to scrap cooperation with the WHO if it continued calling Guangdong the source of the disease. 'The fact that HIV and Aids cases were first reported in the United States does not mean that the fatal epidemic originated there,' Health Minister Zhang Wenkang was quoted as saying. To the Chinese, pressure from the WHO coupled with American media calls to ban travel to China added up to a political conspiracy. It was only when the World Economic Forum cancelled its April summit meeting in Beijing - which would have been an opportunity to showcase China's economic success - that the country appeared to wake up to the reality of Sars. It finally started issuing updates on the number of people who are sick and dead. And when Vice-Premier Wu Yi announced plans to step up action and public education last week, China even said sorry for the way it had handled the crisis.