About-Face in China

China's ruling Communist Party made a rare public admission last week, one that could mark a turning point in whether the Chinese government can ever be more open.

The party admitted it failed to reveal enough data to the World Health Organization and to its own people about the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

This unusual mea culpa by the party comes two years after it apologized for making misleading statements about an explosion at a fireworks factory that killed children working there.

The lesson in both these cases is that China's leaders are finding it difficult to continue sacrificing the truth by putting on a lying face about any embarrassing and serious problems in the naive hope they can protect the party's two main goals: economic growth and social stability. Information about the party's mistakes flows too freely on the Internet these days to fool the masses, let alone foreign investors and the outside world.

The Communist Party itself will need root-and-branch reform - if that's at all possible in a Marxist-Leninist structure - and must publicly admit its mistakes. It must stop controlling the media and introduce open elections of its leaders. These are necessary first steps for creating multiparty democracy in China.

The big test for the party will be if it finally tells the truth about the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters near Tiananmen Square.

As the SARS crisis already shows, without the kind of openness that helps create public trust in government, China's future economic growth will be slowed. Those of China's neighbors who have adopted democracy already have learned that.

Official lying, along with official corruption, will hurt China's development. The only cure is for the party to let itself be transparent in its work and to be held accountable.

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