Authoritarian regimes don't win many popularity contests, but their one selling point is an ability to control their citizens. Singapore ruthlessly nipped its SARS problem in the bud with draconian quarantine measures—one of the few times the island nation's authoritarian reflexes were cheered by the international community, which rewarded Singapore by keeping it off the World Health Organization's (WHO) travel advisory list. But instead of using its vast autocratic apparatus early on, Beijing's leaders lost key weeks in curbing the disease by pretending there was no problem. Now, China's central government is playing a desperate game of catch-up as the number of reported SARS cases ticks ever upward—there were more than 3,900 confirmed patients, 2,500 suspected cases and 190 deaths as of last weekend. If the tide of nervous migrant workers continues to disperse the disease into the countryside, the fear that has already gripped the capital could spread nationwide.
Official denial is out. Now bureaucrats are tripping over themselves trying to introduce anti-SARS measures. Overnight, even the tiniest village has slapped up posters describing SARS symptoms and prevention measures, an indication that the Party network can be amazingly efficient if it's so inclined. On Friday, foreign tourists were barred from Tibet, one of many travel restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus to SARS-free regions. China's central bank got in on the action by retaining all its used notes for 24 hours and disinfecting the tattered bills before sending them back out into circulation. The Party's central propaganda department has also been spinning madly, churning out songs extolling health workers, who will be named "revolutionary martyrs" if they die fighting the virus. Across Beijing, public venues from cinemas, karaoke parlors to swimming pools and basketball courts were closed. That left people little choice but to stay home and watch cheesy variety shows aimed at buoying populist sentiment in these panicked times. A catchy excerpt from one poem on Beijing TV: "We have the closest feelings for the central leadership. We are Beijingers. The city government shares our popular feeling."
The free flow of information is in—an unusual shift in a country where the press is monitored and muzzled. Daily newspapers are saturated with coverage of the crisis; reporting includes exhaustively detailed regional and national tallies of the number of SARS victims. Beijing's new Mayor Wang Qishan, who replaced the disgraced Meng Xuenong on April 20, willingly parried with foreign journalists last week during a press conference aired live on local TV—a radical departure for a leadership that sometimes even scripts the angle of a handshake between two officials. Likewise China's new tag team at the top, President Hu and Premier Wen, has encouraged openness—at least in handling SARS. Now, many will begin pressuring the government to show the same transparency every day. "After SARS, there will be a big rethink of the political structure," predicts Zhang Dajun, founder of the independent Economic Watch Center in Beijing. "The people at the top right now know there is this demand. It doesn't matter whether they're willing or not."
At the nation's élite universities, once China's breeding grounds for political activity, students have taken the trend toward openness as a sign of creeping liberalization. Young Internet surfers have inundated chat rooms with a new slogan: "Keep it up, Brother Hu." The message echoed calls nearly two decades earlier when students championed the newly promoted reformist leader Deng Xiaoping by chanting en masse, "Hello, Xiaoping." The support of politically active youth helped cement Deng's authority, and students today hope to do the same for Hu. "We need to show our support for Hu Jintao, because if he becomes weak, the Old Guard could reassert their power," says Kitty Wang, a student at Shanghai's Jiaotong University, former President Jiang Zemin's alma mater. "That would be terrible, because many of the reforms we are hoping for will not have a chance to grow." In this telegenic age, students have also taken to Wen, who has fashioned himself into a man of the people by mixing with locals on camera—something Jiang and his coterie rarely bothered to do. "He has a nice face and seems to really care about people," says a Fudan University student surnamed Xia. "I feel I can trust him more than the old leaders." And so it is that a health crisis exacerbated by political incompetence and deceit has turned into a political windfall for China's new leaders.
But to secure their victory Hu and Wen will have to bring SARS under control quickly, and it's not clear that is possible. In Beijing alone, the caseload has been rising by an average of 100 patients a day, and there is no sign that the contagion has been contained. To cope with the ballooning number of victims, the central government is desperately beefing up the country's inadequate health-care infrastructure. Last week, construction of a 1,000-bed SARS treatment facility on the outskirts of the capital was completed in an astonishing six days. Yet the WHO is worried about a lack of supplies at all hospitals, starting with masks and ending with ambulances, plus nearly everything in between. The People's Liberation Army has also sent 1,200 of its medical workers to Beijing, but these reinforcements look paltry given the exploding caseload. Beijing Mayor Wang acknowledged last week that the capital has just 3,000 doctors and nurses familiar with respiratory diseases and the emergency procedures used to treat them. "How many know how to cut into the windpipes of SARS patients? How many know how to use respiratory machines?" Wang asked. "We face very big difficulties."