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China's atypical politics
By Xu Yufang

BEIJING - Half a week has lapsed since the "Sunday Tremor" of Beijing, and many cadres of the municipal government of China's state capital are still mourning the political sacrifice of their former mayor, Meng Xuenong.

A random survey among a small sample of Beijing cadres showed that most of them believed Meng had not committed any mistake that deserved the punishment - being unseated in a highly humiliating fashion.

"Yes, Beijing did under-report its SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] figures, but who else did not? Why is there not a sacking in Guangdong, Hunan or Shanghai?" asked a Beijing-based newspaper editor.

"Speaking from the view of logic, even if Meng's sacking is necessary, it should not be before Zhang Mao, the vice mayor with the portfolio of health and culture. Furthermore, Zhang holds a master of law degree and is supposed to be legality-minded. But he is still there," said the editor.

The top of China's hierarchy had its own views. Meng's sacking served as a gesture to the world that China had repented. Firing any lesser personnel, for example Zhang, could not bring out that result, explained a source close to the organizational work units of the ruling Communist Party of China (CCP).

In fact, Meng had no reservations about agreeing to that fate when it was handed down. His cooperative manner would assure him another equally important posting in the near future, said the source.

There were suggestions from outside China that Meng's sacking was also for the balance of factional equilibrium - since former health minister Zhang Wenkang, a protege of former party chief Jiang Zemin, was axed, someone from current party chief Hu Jintao's camp also needed to go. Meng had a history of being close to the Communist Youth League, Hu's power base, and praised Hu personally in public early this year.

"The political scenario in Beijing now is not that simplistic," commented the source, adding that observers from outside had better wait a while longer before making judgments.

From all the facts gathered, the sacking of two ministerial-ranking cadres came very suddenly.

Last Saturday, journalists and correspondents in Beijing were notified about a news conference to update the SARS situation in China and particularly Beijing. The notice said both Zhang Wenkang and Meng would preside. It turned out on Sunday that the presiding cadre was Gao Qiang, with the new title of permanent vice minister of health. Gao, an economics academic, was previously a vice secretary general of the State Council, China's cabinet.

It was after the news conference that the sackings were announced.

Obviously, the decision to sack both was made on April 16, during an emergency meeting of the standing committee of the CCP Politburo. The meeting was called on short notice, so short that at least three members, Zeng Qinghong, Li Changchun and Luo Gan, had to cut short inspection trips in various corners of the country.

Even Hu had to change his itinerary. According to reliable sources, local cadres of Hunan province were waiting on April 15 to accompany him to pay a tribute to Shaoshan, the birthplace of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People's Republic of China. Then Hu's special aircraft bypassed them and flew all the way to Beijing from Guangdong.

It is not known yet whether the emergency meeting of China's highest level of decision-making was prompted by what Hu witnessed in Guangdong, Ground Zero of SARS for China and the whole world. For sure, he was not exactly happy with Guangdong cadres, so much so that he stayed away from the opening of the Guangzhou Spring Trade Fair.

The main theme of the April 16 Politburo standing committee meeting was transparency regarding SARS. All local governments were urged to report the real situation to the public fully and quickly. But that was not all.

A special guideline on propaganda works related to SARS was circulated to Shanghai and neighboring cities on Friday. It was labeled "top secret" and was not for the eyes of local cadres. No copy of any form, including manuscript copying, was allowed. Asia Times Online tried to learn the content, but to no avail. The most ATol could discover was that Shanghai and neighboring cities, Greater Shanghai, got special treatment in reporting their SARS developments.

What could that mean?

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Apr 24, 2003

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