SARS: Disease and the Dictatorship in China

Revolutionary Worker #1198, May 11, 2003, posted at

We received the following from A World to Win News Service:

1. Prelude

280403 A World to Win News Service. The SARS epidemic has brought a huge panic to the people all over the world. SARS (which means Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is a disease similar to flu but much more dangerous. Everyday press headlines are about SARS, inside pages are filled with its stories. Almost all the governments of the world are anxious about it. The Chinese government fired the Health Minister and put people in quarantine (enforced isolation in their homes or camps in remote areas). Fear of SARS has led to the closing of hospitals. Even villages are sealed and people are not allowed to come or go. Schools and colleges are closed. University students are restricted from travelling for the May first holidays. In India, the government called a special cabinet meeting to take anti-SARS measures. The Canadian government decided to take extraordinary precautions and the World Health Organisation warned people not to visit Toronto. The governments of many countries of the world have alerted doctors at their international airports to stop anyone who might be carrying the SARS virus from getting entrance. Such drastic measures on a world scale are unprecedented in recent memory.

It is said that originally the disease emerged in Foshan, southern China, last November. But recent investigation has revealed that even before then the symptoms had been seen in Inner Mongolia. Later it spread to Guangdong province, and from there to nearby Hong Kong. Now it is believed to have spread to as many as 25 countries, from Singapore to Canada and from India to the United States. Still, it has not been fully investigated where the disease originated, what are its root causes, and its system of spreading.

In China, there are around 2,000 people reported to have been infected from this virus, in Hong Kong around 1,500, in Singapore around 200, in Canada around 150, and in the United States around 40. Worldwide, around 4,000 cases are reported. Similarly, the reported number of deaths in China is 86, in Hong Kong 94, in Singapore 16, in Canada 14, and worldwide 218. The number of people infected and the number of deaths have been increasing every day. Some knowledgeable people doubt the accuracy of these figures. The World Health Organization believes that China is concealing several hundred cases.

Although scientists may have identified the virus, and hope to prevent the disease from becoming more widespread, there are many reasons that have caused people to panic. First of all, the Chinese government declined to take responsibility to tackle the new virus and instead hid it for a long time, which caused a delay in identifying and taking precautions against it. Second, the disease attacked Hong Kong, a major transportation center, from where travellers spread it around the world. Third, the exact diagnosis of the disease is still unknown, so doctors can't tell for sure if someone has it or not.

No government or social system can prevent new and dangerous diseases from arising. But any government is expected to take a certain minimum responsibility and show seriousness in protecting the public health. Instead, the Chinese government's attitude and measures made the situation much worse. It failed the people on a very basic life and death issue.

2. Interest and Class Differences

If the Chinese government's approach to handling this epidemic is examined, the reactionary nature of its new capitalist ruling class is perfectly revealed. When the disease first appeared in Inner Mongolia and later in southern China last November, the Chinese government did not care anything about it. Their only worry was that if news of the epidemic got out, it would bring "social instability," as they later put it. Guangdong province is the focus of international investment in Chinese factories and sweatshops, and they were probably afraid that word of the disease would make Westerners hold back in travel and investment. After the disease spread to affluent Hong Kong, where its presence became obvious to the world, the Chinese foreign ministry made several misleading statements claiming that the disease was "effectively under control." But publicity about the epidemic led the World Health Organisation to issue an alert and focus attention on the Chinese government's hidden role. Ultimately, the situation muddied the Chinese government's reputation and shook its so-called "social stability." In an attempt to save face, several high leading officials were fired. This series of incidents and the attitude of the Chinese government show that what concerned them was not the welfare of the people, but the threat to their business worldwide.

The notion that the Chinese government would hide such a disease and risk the lives of the people in the name of maintaining "social stability" has raised some grave questions. The answers are related to China's social system and the class relations in the state apparatus. In every society, the government is the face of the system. This can easily be understood by simply comparing Maoist China and China under today's capitalist clique. The difference between Maoist China and the phony communism of today's China is the difference between socialist society and capitalist society.

3. Is China a socialist country?

Now, China is no longer a socialist country and its Communist Party is capitalist. Mao Tsetung, who led the Chinese revolution, warned that this could happen. Today's capitalist ruling class in China are the inheritors of those bureaucrats that Mao called "capitalist roaders" because they opposed the further advance of socialism and fought to restore the capitalist system based on profit.

Ultimately, right after the death of Mao, the clique led by Deng Xiaoping staged a counterrevolutionary coup, arresting Mao's closest comrades and setting up a new capitalist dictatorship.

4. The differences between socialism and capitalism

In socialist society the highest good is the interests of the broad masses of the people, whereas capitalist society is driven by profits, which means the interests of a handful of exploiters, the bourgeoisie. In socialist society, development is gauged by the increasing participation of the working people in decision-making at all levels and the benefit to the people as a whole. In capitalist society, the masses of people are completely ignored and a handful of reactionaries monopolize political power and enjoy the wealth of the whole society. Socialist society runs through the leadership of proletarian ideology and politics. Capitalist society is run by capitalist bureaucrats and technocrats making decisions on the basis of what will bring the greatest profit. The criminal neglect of the Chinese bourgeoisie of the responsibility for tackling the disease when it first emerged happened because of their class character and capitalist profit orientation.

If China were a socialist society, the first reaction of the state definitely would not have been to run away from the responsibility, but to identify the disease and the root cause, and develop medicine and apply precautions immediately as much as possible. The whole masses of the affected areas would have been mobilized to do this. It goes without saying that people would have been treated without charge. The state would have taken the major responsibility for the eradication of the problem, not because their business might go bad, but because the life of the people is incomparably precious in a socialist society. But the capitalist reactionary governments measure everything with money, and treat people not as human beings but as a means of producing profit for them.

5. Some experiences

Let's examine how Maoist China found the solution for the disease known as snail fever or schistosomiasis, once considered an incurable disease (see Dr. Joshua S. Horn, Away with All Pests, 1971). The first and the foremost principle of a socialist society such as Maoist China is that all the activities of the state have to serve the interests of the people. Second, these activities should be led with the application of the dialectical materialist conception. The politics, philosophy and even the military strategy and tactics of the Chinese revolution were perfectly applied in the field of health and sanitation in revolutionary China.

Guided by Maoist principles, in the 1960s Chinese scientists and physicians set the task of eliminating this disease in that country. At that time, it also affected around 250 million people in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Schistosomiasis is a horrible disease which causes intestinal inflammation, bleeding, anaemia and intestinal obstruction. People's bellies swell enormously and weigh as much as ten kilos (about 22 pounds) instead of an average of half a kilo (about one pound). Children's growth is stunted. Villages afflicted with this disease were gradually emptied of people.

But this disease was identified in China and eliminated through a mass campaign to hunt down the snails that carry it. Basic policy questions were involved about how the country's resources -- the wealth produced by the working people -- should be used. Should health resources be entirely concentrated in the big cities and better-off areas as they always had? Or should attention be given to the poorest and most backward areas so that the country's gaping inequalities could be overcome? How important was the health of poor peasants in an isolated area? We can see the way China's rulers today answer such questions. But when China was socialist, things were different.

The party considered that if it could not lead the poorest people to free themselves of things like the diseases that left them less than human in body and mind, then the contributions of those who had the most to gain by building a new China would be lost. The country would not change socially and not progress as much as it could materially. People would say that socialism was no better than capitalism. To lead this campaign, the Chinese Communist Party applied three major concepts -- the mass line, concentration of forces and the paper tiger theory. How could these political and military strategies and tactics be applied in health and physical science? It's not the point that military doctrine gives a particular solution to a particular problem, such as what particular medicine should be used against a particular disease. The point is, Maoist philosophy has a general conception of cherishing the masses of people and looking for the solutions to problems in their conscious activity.

The concept of mass line rests on the conviction that the ordinary people possess great strength and wisdom and when their initiative is given full play they can accomplish miracles. To mobilize the masses, the leadership has to explain the problem, its nature and the methods to solve it. Once the masses understand this they are themselves mobilized against the problem. If today's government would have depended on the masses against the SARS, for instance in carrying out campaigns to sterilize the places and things which spread it, and caring for and watching over each other for symptoms, the masses would definitely have played a tremendous role in prevention. But instead of informing the people about the problem and mobilizing them to solve it, the Chinese government hid it. Furthermore, having made selfishness a "virtue," as it is in China today and all other capitalist societies, it is very difficult to persuade potential SARS carriers to identify themselves for fear of quarantine.

The second concept is the concentration of a superior force against the major enemy. The Maoist concept in this regard is, "In every battle, concentrate an absolutely superior force, encircle the enemy forces completely, strive to wipe them out thoroughly and do not let any escape from the net." This principle was applied in hunting snails, selecting the most affected areas, providing all possible medical equipment, applying all available manpower, and thoroughly destroying the snails to eliminate schistosomiasis.

The third concept, the paper tiger theory, is the question of strategic confidence that the people can triumph over problems such as this disease, no matter how dreadful it is right now. People are the most powerful factor in understanding and identifying the problem and finding the solution. In China, in order to hunt this little snail, altogether 300,000 people-days of labor were mobilized in one small area over two months time. Mainly this was done by the peasants themselves, along with medical personnel whose job was not only to apply their knowledge but to train many others to combat the disease? Do the present Chinese bourgeoisie see problems and the people from that standpoint?

Ironically, present-day China is not as poor as it was when the revolution first took place. Whereas Maoist China stood on nothing more than the ashes of imperialist and feudalist plunder, the achievements of socialism inherited by today's rulers left a full-fledged developed infrastructure. Even so, because of the reactionary character of the present Chinese government, it has proven far less capable of dealing with serious medical problems than Maoist China almost three decades ago.

6. Disease and dictatorship

The emergence of an unknown disease anywhere is not a surprising matter. The complete elimination of many is possible thanks to the development of science and technology. But in many cases, the old diseases become resistant to medication and we need more effective ways to eliminate them. Even when diseases cannot yet be cured, like HIV/AIDS, to the extent that they are not hidden, precautions and treatments have been developed, but the treatment is mainly confined to people in the imperialist countries. Actually, there have been far fewer cases of infection and death by SARS than some other diseases that could easily be prevented. For instance, around ten thousand people die every year in Gujarat, India, from rabies. Hundreds of thousands of people die of malaria in South Asia, Africa and Latin America. Many thousands of people die in Bangladesh from drinking water containing arsenic. At least a million people die in Africa of tuberculosis yearly. Yet none of these illnesses are the subject of panicky articles in the press or emergency warnings by health organizations. How long it takes to identify a disease and how much fighting capacity against a disease the state has is a secondary question. The principal question is whether or not the state is responsible to and for the people, which means which social system it represents.

Hiding diseases and mocking the lives of the people is an extremely frustrating and a reactionary notion. As in the saying "a sick mind has a sick solution," phony communism, this sick society, had the sick solution of making profit by hiding diseases. This irresponsibility toward the people reveals the antagonistic relationship between the people and the government.

The kind of sickness of the Chinese bureaucracy is naked to the world. As an example, the health bureau in Hunan province covered up for several years a HIV/AIDS scandal in which tens of thousands of Chinese peasants were infected by commercial blood collectors. Once known as a great revolutionary people under the leadership of Chairman Mao and socialism, now the Chinese people have been robbed of their political power and hundreds of millions have been reduced to poverty by the reactionary dictators and new exploiters. While a few billionaire dictators, who have been applauded by American imperialism, gorge on the booty stolen from the people, and have developed thanks to the infrastructure built by Maoist China, millions and millions of people are pauperized and forced to sell their blood for their survival. But they are not even provided a clean needle to take blood from their bodies.

7. Conclusion

In the final analysis, the spread and fear of the SARS epidemic is inseparably connected to the nature of the bourgeois dictatorship in China. While people are suffering from the acts of the government they must see not only the technical facilities and the ability of the government but also the class differences between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497