February 14th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Australia-US free trade agreement: free trade or fair trade?

EDITORIAL: Bush and Iraq: the essential issues

ELECTION: How Labor outgunned the Coalition in Queensland

AGRICULTURE: Political will needed to solve dairy industry crisis

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Latham catches government on wrong foot

OPINION: Regionalism the solution to excessive centralism

STRAWS IN THE WIND : Deschooling or reschooling? / Oxbridge / Pluralism

Death ethics (letter)

Front and centre (letter)

CANADA: Exposing the myths behind 'free market' agriculture policy

ISLAM: Musharraf's ambitious quest to lead the Islamic world

Bird flu cover-up shows that change in China comes slowly

COMMENT: Is President Bush really "dumb"?

BOOKS: Divorce Law and the Future of Marriage, by Barry Maley


MUSIC: Reflections for Peace, Joy and Serenity

Books promotion page

Bird flu cover-up shows that change in China comes slowly

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, February 14, 2004
China is changing the way the world works. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland - the gathering of top politicians, businessmen and the world's economic movers and shakers - there was little doubt that China would one day rival, if not overtake, the United States as a world economic power. But as the current bird flu outbreak is showing, China has a long way to go before it achieves the levels of good governance and openness necessary to becoming an economic superpower.

Cover up

However, few things seem to change rapidly in China. In the January issue of the China Journal, abstracted in The Asian Wall St Journal, Bruce Gilley, a doctoral student at Princeton University in the United States, commented in his essay "The 'End of Politics' in Beijing" that "claims that the Chinese Communist Party has somehow become more democratic do not stand up to scrutiny." The ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, "is premised on the belief that threat to party rule can be combated by improved economic conditions."

Gilley argues that by suppressing political competition, the eventual - and inevitable - transition in China's governance will become more unsettled and the challenges will be greater.

Some things are changing - China is experiencing "spontaneous democratisation" at the township and county levels, which is continuing despite an effort by the central powers to suppress it - but other aspect of China's communist system are not changing.

Take for example the issue of the deadly bid flu now sweeping Asia. Recent reports from The New Scientist, a highly respected British science and technology publication, said that bird flu started a year ago in southern China.

Indonesia admitted that it has the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, which has killed people in Vietnam and other Asian nations. This strain of bird flu is transmissible between birds and humans, but not between - so far - humans and humans. Because the human body has no natural resistance, the possibility for a pandemic far greater than SARS has been contemplated. The would is now facing the worst ever outbreak of bird flu.

"So how have things got so out of control?" the New Scientist asks. After strenuous denials, Indonesia has admitted that H5N1 virus, has been spreading out of control since August. Thailand admits it had it in November. China says the disease was first detected in early January.

"In fact, the outbreak began as early as the first half of 2003, probably in China, health experts told the New Scientist. A combination of official cover-up and questionable farming practices allowed it to turn into the epidemic now underway," the magazine commented.

It seems that while the Chinese response to bird flu has been more strenuous than the early response to SARS, the same dynamics are at work at the local level - local level officials do not want to be the bearer of bad news and the higher level officials are, amongst other things, "in the dark" over the spread of this disease due to the lack of a free press.

As for the World Health Organization, the priority is to prevent a human disaster. Klaus Stohr, WHO head of influenza, commented that "It is a hopeful sign that with all the heavy exposure of people across such a large area, only a few are known to be infected."

Comments the New Scientist: "The great fear is that someone infected with both human and bird flu will give rise to a lethal hybrid that can spread from person to person."

The WHO is likely to ask countries in the southern hemisphere to forego some of the normal allocation of flu vaccine to prevent flu infection by workers slaughtering chicken and other poultry.

However, immunising workers in a country as vast as China and in the Southeast Asian region is a daunting task - especially given that most of the poultry is these nations is reared not in factory conditions as in Australia, but by the proverbial chooks in the backyard, which are then sold alive in markets.

The Chinese think that fresh slaughtered chicken is moire tasty and healthy. Thus, the close proximity of chickens and other poultry to workers, storekeepers and customers lifts the likelihood of a deadly combination of human and bird flu.

It is also possible that the bird flu and human flu could combine in pigs, which are also raised in backyard conditions in China.

  • Jeff Babb

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