China Leadership Monitor

China's Response to SARS

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

A month after severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) moved from a medical crisis—albeit one unacknowledged as such by the Chinese authorities—to a political crisis, it has become apparent that the disease will have a significant impact on China's political system, though one that is likely to be long-term rather than immediate. Although some have argued that SARS will be "China's Chernobyl," leading to far-reaching political change and perhaps democratization, others have maintained that the political system will simply absorb the impact and not change. Both judgments appear wide of the mark. Much more likely is that SARS will set off a variety of forces which the government will try to control, but which are going to be increasingly difficult to contain. It is still too early to draw strong conclusions about the impact of the SARS crisis, but some tentative conjectures about both elite politics and the longer-range implications can be hazarded.