China's sudden efforts to deal transparently with the SARS epidemic is cutting to the heart of a rigid political system that for years operated entirely by its own rules - free from the need to answer to foreign or even domestic pressure.
Now, on the heels of a shake-up that has resulted in the removal of two high-level officials over the weekend - the mayor of Beijing and the health minister - the leadership is scrambling to assure international agencies as well as its own people that it is, finally, facing the dimensions of the problem, even as the number of cases rises.
Monday, Beijing officials reported 109 new cases of the illness in the city, on top of the figure of 346 announced on Sunday. Only a week earlier, the now-dismissed health minister, Zhang Wenkang - at one time the personal physician of former President Jiang Zemin - had been sticking with the figure of 22 SARS cases in Beijing. Mr. Zhang had told World Health Agency officials for months that the disease, which has been found mainly in south China, had not reached the capital, and that foreigners and Chinese tourists were safe in the city.
Yet international businesses, agencies, embassies, and local party members have brought a new kind of pressure to bear on the Chinese system. The leaders have even canceled all but one day of China's upcoming May 1 "golden week" holiday, a time of travel, as a health precaution. It has also continued to urge a worried population to take measures like washing hands, and, ironically, avoiding crowds.
The demotion of Zhang and Mayor Meng Xuenong, and a close ally of new President Hu Jintao, is not the first recent example of high-level discipline. But it is by far the most public. Niu Maosheny, former minister of water management, was given the heave-ho quietly in 1998, after China's floods claimed a summer of devastation.
In Chinese parlance, one source said, this week's sacking is "killing the chicken to scare the monkey" - to put the party on notice that at least when it comes to public-health issues that can bring a strong censure to China, the old rules don't apply.
In a press briefing Monday, evidently designed to exhibit the new transparency, executive vice-minister of health Gao Qiang said his ministry had not been ready for the spread of SARS, and that it had not "given out clear instructions or effective guidance." China's new figures are now 1,814 cases, and 79 fatalities.
While Chinese official media were silent on the cause of the two sackings, "everyone knows it is because of SARS," one political scientist stated.
"The action of removing the two ministerial cadres is an attempt to repair the damaged image of China in the international community," argues Gao Chaoqun, a leading economic editor. "The new leadership is still an ambitious one that wants to repair damage quickly and make an achievement."
Some sources indicate that the removal of Mayor Meng is also partly an opportunistic attack on President Hu. The move is an attempt, they argue, to remove a close ally at a time when Hu is trying to build a coalition of supporters that is independent from the wide and powerful circles of former leader Jiang.