The crisis has cast a glaring spotlight on the government's secretive and often-duplicitous officials, its lack of accountability, its lessening grip on information and its inadequate public services. With Beijing now acknowledging 2,158 SARS cases and 97 deaths, and many more expected to surface, the government is under severe pressure to contain an outbreak it has mishandled from the beginning.
If the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, were to grow out of control for many months, it could cripple the fast-growing economy, which might be the gravest concern to the ruling elite. A faltering economy would deal a blow to the nascent middle class and leave millions of laid-off state employees and migrant workers out of jobs, threatening domestic stability.
"That's how scary this situation is to the Chinese leadership," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. "The worst scenario could be truly devastating."
For now, the full political and social impact of the outbreak in China is as unknowable as its public health effects.
Since 1949, the Communist Party has maintained its tight reins on power during the famine of the Great Leap Forward, the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, the democracy protests of 1989, and, in recent years, mounting discontent about the ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
But this time, with their health and livelihoods at stake, it is clear that people from all walks of life care more than they have in past crises about how the government responds.
"The impact of it is as significant as Tiananmen," said Li Xiguang, a journalism professor at Qinghua University, referring to the 1989 crackdown on democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. "But the difference is that Tiananmen was more political, in that it was a political protest and the Chinese people didn't take it very personally. But this one, everyone is worried and everyone is taking it personally, because it's about their own life, their own safety."
This time, as it has never done with Tiananmen, the ruling party has made extraordinary conciliatory confessions to the people, giving a few Chinese observers hope that this could become China's Chernobyl, an internationally embarrassing disaster that forces the government to become more open and accountable.
Considering that the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant 17 years ago marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, that could be an unsettling lesson for China's new generation of leaders, headed by General Secretary Hu Jintao. They took over in November, as the new virus quietly began to emerge in southern China's Guangdong province.
Guangdong officials knew up to four months ago that they were contending with a dangerous new disease but failed to warn the public before Chinese New Year on Feb. 1, when tens of millions of Chinese travel near and far to celebrate with their families. The disease spread quickly in Guangdong in late January and early February, and soon began spreading around China, to nearby Hong Kong, then around the globe.
Throughout, the state-run news media was virtually silent, under orders from the government not to report on SARS in China. As the disease spread through Beijing and various provinces in March, government officials claimed that China was safe for travel and the virus under control. Senior officials continued to make such claims even after the news blackout was partially lifted early this month.
Meanwhile, people spread rumors and information, including via mobile phone and e-mail, beyond the government's control. And foreign news accounts hammered Beijing with reports casting serious doubt on the government's numbers, including embarrassing tales of SARS cases being hidden from World Health Organization doctors.
On Sunday, national television broadcast a live, two-hour news conference in which the government criticized its conduct on SARS and admitted, after weeks of denials, to a serious outbreak in Beijing. Not long after, the New China News Agency announced that the health minister and the mayor of Beijing had been fired. Monday brought another rare public self-criticism in the state-run press, from Beijing party secretary Liu Qi, a member of the secretive Politburo.
"The government and the party are losing face, and they lost credibility," said Bao Tong, a top aide to former party leader Zhao Ziyang, a reformer purged shortly before the Tiananmen crackdown. "It's a common thing for them to lose face in front of the foreign media, but it was the first time in front of the domestic audience. It was the first time for our Chinese people to see their government and officials lying in front of them."
The number of acknowledged SARS cases is rising steadily every day, as are public panic and the pressure on the government to stop the virus' spread.
The government has sought to rally the public to join it in a war against the virus, giving the issue prominent coverage in the state-run news media. Officials say the government will spend all that is necessary to combat SARS, and have taken the economically painful step of discouraging domestic travel. Health officials say they are stepping up screening efforts at transportation hubs such as train stations and airports.
Early today, the city school board announced that public schools in Beijing will close for two weeks and idle about 1.7 million students, according to the Associated Press. Beijing news media cited a government notice saying the move was meant to prevent the spread of SARS.
Some colleges in Beijing are closing early and some major universities are quarantining or imposing restrictions on their students and faculty. A national graduate school entrance exam has been postponed.
The nightmare scenario is that students, migrant workers, business travelers and tourists infected with SARS would carry the virus from China's cities to rural provinces where hospitals and clinics are woefully unprepared, setting off an epidemic.
"We can see massive numbers" in a worst-case scenario, said Yang of the University of Chicago. "The number infected could be perhaps not just a matter of tens of thousands but in the millions, and China would be essentially taken off the map in terms of global interactions."
Experts hope that fear of such a catastrophe will force China to make much-needed investments in its public health system.
"It must be a graphic demonstration of really some of the systemic problems in China," said a Western diplomat here. "I think this may be something of a wake-up call for them."
In fact, the virus has already spread to rural provinces, and the government in recent days has continued to revise the number of cases throughout the country. Even after the restating of Beijing figures, critics believe the government continues to underreport cases elsewhere.
A particular target of scrutiny is Shanghai, a city of 16 million people and a major domestic and international travel destination where virtually no one believes the official report of only two probable cases.
"In China, whether you do a cover-up or not is not something the local government can decide," said Bao, a former member of the party elite. "The real situation is that, in Beijing, there were so many foreign journalists and World Health Organization officials, and there were medical workers constantly reporting to these people."
If the government wants to take a truly helpful conciliatory step, Bao suggested, it will loosen its reins on the state news media.
"The best self-criticism is to allow Chinese journalists and foreign journalists to go wherever they want to gather information, to interview, to ask people about the figures, to allow them to go into any hospitals and allow all the newspapers to publish stories from both Chinese and foreign journalists."
But as far as the Chinese government may have gone in recent days to address its vulnerabilities, not many are hopeful for such a break with decades of stringent political control. Even now, as the state-run press reports extensively on SARS, it is following the government line.
"It's [only] officially sanctioned openness," the Western diplomat said, concluding that, for now, the SARS crisis does not appear to be a spark for political reform.
"In terms of this representing some dramatic breakthrough, I'm very much convinced that the Chinese system does not allow for dramatic breakthroughs at the moment."