The problem isn't just the virus, which has traumatized at least two other cities: Beijing and Hong Kong. What's especially nerve-racking is the cover-up at the source, in the corridors of power in China. Hu Jintao, who became leader of China's Communist Party half a year ago, now has to manage the country's biggest internal political crisis since the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square. After Beijing's initial efforts to hide the severity of crisis, Hu will have to step nimbly to protect the party's authority—and his career.
Once upon a time, outbreaks of disease and environmental catastrophe could be swept under the rug. Man-made famines in Russia in the 1930s and China two decades later were scarcely known outside their borders. But more recently the world has become too interconnected for deception of that magnitude. In 1986, when a nuclear reactor exploded at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, the Soviet government initially tried to keep it quiet. But when Geiger counters in Scandinavia went haywire, Moscow had to come clean. This year the truth about SARS emerged after citizens infected in China traveled outside the country—and after the groundbreaking reporting of TIME and other international publications.
China still has a long way to go. Beijing even now has been less forthcoming than the Soviets were during their crisis 16 years ago. Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted that Chernobyl was a disaster (with some caveats, to be sure) 18 days after the explosion; Beijing is still being less than honest about SARS, unless you really believe that, as of last week, there were just two cases of the disease in Shanghai (pop. 17 million). Chernobyl eventually helped promote positive change in the Soviet Union as citizens grasped just how awful the system had become. Gorbachev realized that "even if you wanted to be Stalin, you couldn't anymore," says Michael Mandelbaum of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Within months, the Soviet leader accelerated his perestroika and glasnost reforms, which speeded the collapse of Soviet communism. In China, Hu sacked the health minister and Beijing's mayor. But it is still unclear if the Chinese leadership knows that it is not possible to have free markets, and the economic prosperity they bring, without a free flow of truthful information. "They don't understand what it means to handle things openly. They don't understand it's the start of a crisis. They are not psychologically, materially or politically ready for this," says Huang Jing, a political scientist at Utah State University.
There's another model China's leaders would do well to study. In 1985 a massive earthquake shook Mexico City. At the time, Mexico was, in effect, a one-party state, governed by a deeply corrupt and softly totalitarian regime whose leaders were beggaring the country. But within the bureaucracy was embedded a generation of brilliant technocrats who were trying to open the nation and its closed economy to the world. The crisis of legitimacy posed by the earthquake was a catalyst; it convinced the Mexican public and many of the technocrats that Mexico had to change in a fundamental way—that its society and politics, not just its economy, had to welcome new ideas. After a decade and a half of many bumps and some tragedies, the process reached a pinnacle when the 2000 presidential election saw the overthrow of the old order. The candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had ruled Mexico without a break since the 1920s, lost to Vicente Fox.
The story holds another lesson: Mexico could not have changed on its own. The transformation from a closed, state-dominated economy to an open one was wrenching. Mexico needed help, which it got from the U.S. The North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiated by the first Bush Administration and signed by that of Bill Clinton, guaranteed that the U.S. would buy what Mexico produced; later, when the peso collapsed, Clinton put together a rescue package.
Successive American administrations helped Mexico not because they had drunk of the milk of human kindness but because it was in their interests to do so. Economic turmoil in Mexico would have spilled north of the border, just as polluted water and diseases do. For Clinton, especially, it was axiomatic that the U.S. could not be immune to economic, environmental or health crises elsewhere in the world—that such "soft" issues posed as real a danger to American interests as "hard" ones like terrorism. "People looked askance," Clinton told me last week, "when we said that aids and other diseases were a security threat, that environmental degradation was a security threat. SARS is just the latest example." You don't have to visit Toronto to know that he's right.