SARS fears spur stronger measures
Beijing closes movie houses; Toronto fights travel warning.
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"There are two things you don't mess with when it comes to the Chinese - money and health," says a Western expert here. "This situation is affecting both."Skip to next paragraph
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This weekend, former President Jiang Zemin - still a very powerful figure in China - weighed in on a crisis that developed when he was at the nation's helm. The Communist Party is "highly responsible" for the people's welfare, he said.
Until a few days ago, only President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were identified among top leaders as saying anything about a disease that has brought unexpected waves of anger and distrust among people in Beijing. Now, most of the nine Standing Committee members have had themselves identified as saying something supportive about efforts to stop SARS.
Since April 20, China has taken an pro-active approach to SARS, after weeks spent denying a problem. Informed sources here say that Beijing officials knew months ago that SARS had reached their city from south China.
Many were individuals seeking treatment in Beijing. Yet rather than interrupt or alarm top party officials on the eve of the annual People's Congress in March, sources say, information about the illness was kept quiet, and some officials hoped the problem would disappear. As it did not, and as cases began to spread, worries mounted at high levels for weeks over a crisis that began to slide into a cover-up.
According to the Washington Post Sunday, Messrs. Hu and Wen were not informed early, though Jia Qinglin, former Beijing Party Secretary and one of the nine top Standing Committee officials, was.
Some China watchers speculate that a faction loyal to former President Jiang may be readying themselves to attack Hu and Wen once the SARS crisis is over. Others feel the two new leaders - who came to power on March 19 - can use the crisis to shake up the system.
Meanwhile, daily life in Beijing is dramatically different. Only 10 days ago, Beijingers spoke of SARS as something happening in another country. Sunday, however, the Landau shopping intersection, a heavily traveled zone of fast food spots and computer and department stores - was empty. Beijing International Airport continues to be jammed with departures, but nearly bereft of arrivals.
Most noticeable is a wide array of penetrating medicinal smells in airport departure lounges, elevators, and foyers.
A saleswoman says she came to work as people no one knew were swabbing the floor with a watery mixture. And Dettol, a popular disinfectant, is sold out.
Vegetable shops sell out of white turnips used in Chinese medicine. Migrant workers have headed for the countryside where they hear it is safer. Expatriate students and teachers are departing. Foreign firms hold staff meetings outside. People keep a distance and worry about being ostracized if they sneeze or cough.
Some Chinese parents are ordering offspring to leave crowded dorms here in Beijing, and come home. But those returning may face difficulty reentering life in their hometowns.
"My neighbors told my family that if I came back to live, they would move to other places," reported one young woman who was called home. For now, she is living with friends in a rented room for a 10-day period of quarantine.
• Material from the wires was used in this report.