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  • China Special Report
  •   Hong Kong Faulted On Handling of 'Bird Flu' Crisis

    By Keith B. Richburg
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, January 4, 1998; Page A17

    HONG KONG, Jan. 3—After winning praise for presiding over a smooth transition to Chinese rule, and then defending the local currency during Asia's economic collapse, Hong Kong's six-month-old Chinese government has come under surprisingly sharp criticism for its mishandling of a "bird flu" outbreak that has killed four people.

    "Incompetence" is how the English-language South China Morning Post described the government's reaction to the avian influenza crisis. "Chaos" was the word used by Apple Daily, Hong Kong's leading Chinese-language newspaper. Added the Chinese-language Sing Pao, "The government's tactics in handling the bird flu case can be described as nonsensical."

    Such pointed criticism rarely has been heard since July 1, when Hong Kong ended 156 years of British colonial rule and rejoined China. But some analysts believe the current tone reflects a rising public dissatisfaction with the new administration of chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, as an economic slowdown begins to be felt and as the initial excitement and uncertainty surrounding the return of Hong Kong to China begins to ebb.

    "I think basically it's not so much the bird flu thing -- it's the general mood of the community," said Joseph Y.S. Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong. "The honeymoon period is gone, and Tung is being assessed more critically. The community's mood is not good because of the situation in the stock market and the real estate market. For the first time in a long time, people are starting to worry about their jobs in Hong Kong."

    The bird flu crisis has tapped into what some believe is a widespread sense that the new government -- with a coterie of wealthy businessmen as its top advisers -- is "insensitive" to a variety of popular concerns.

    For example, during the first week of December, the government ordered 24 Hong Kong high schools to switch from using English to Cantonese, igniting a firestorm of protest from teachers and parents who want English-language education to continue. The government also announced a plan to bring in foreign workers when Hong Kong residents are fretting about losing their jobs in an anticipated recession this year.

    Adding to the "insensitivity" accusation, Tung remained virtually absent when the outbreak erupted in November, never taking to the airwaves to calm the growing panic. He spoke publicly on the issue for the first time on Dec. 31 when he visited a poultry market in the Cheung Sha Wan district -- breaking his silence only after four people apparently had died of the disease. Apple Daily wrote a scathing editorial that asked, "What are you doing with your time, Mr. Tung?"

    In addition, Health and Welfare Secretary Katherine Fok was on vacation for the past couple of weeks. Health Director Margaret Chan, who has taken a visible, front-line position during the crisis, has been criticized for diminishing the problem by boasting in December that she ate chicken every day. That was two weeks before she acknowledged there was indeed a health problem and announced that Hong Kong's estimated 1.3 million chickens would be slaughtered.

    Today, officials confirmed that a 16th person has been diagnosed with the avian form of influenza known as A H5N1. Five others also may have contracted the disease.

    Much of the criticism of the government's handling of the crisis has been aired on talk radio. "On radio hot-line programs, people criticized that you didn't see Tung," said Cheng, the political scientist. "My interpretation is a general mood of dissatisfaction among ordinary people."

    Politicians have joined the attacks. The newly formed Citizens Party said this week's slaughter was "unprofessional and disordered." Party head Christine Loh, a popular ousted member of the colonial legislature disbanded on July 1, said, "This operation should have been planned with military precision."

    Other politicians have suggested that the top government officials dealing with the crisis should resign.

    The operation to kill the chickens, launched last Monday, degenerated into chaos when the Agriculture and Fisheries Department acknowledged it had discovered 70,000 chickens in 68 farms it didn't know existed, plus an additional 20,000 birds housed in "chicken hotels" in the remote New Territories area near the border with the rest of China. As the slaughter moved into its sixth day, bags of dead chickens lay uncollected -- falling prey to scavenging dogs, cats and rats. Other chickens managed to escape and were seen roaming the streets and through public housing complexes.

    Officials were further embarrassed when they were forced to concede that ducks, not chickens, may be the most likely source of the outbreak. Academic reports show that ducks and geese carry the virus without showing any symptoms, and officials said today the slaughter may be extended to other poultry after tests are completed. The slaughter had included ducks and geese that were in the same quarters as chickens.

    Hong Kong residents have been hearing different government stories about the virus, its threat and origins. And to many, the latest revelation regarding ducks -- coming after the mass chicken slaughter -- seems like the bureaucratic equivalent of saying: Oops, never mind.

    "What is amazing is that the government should have embarked on this task without any accurate estimate of its scale or duration," the South China Morning Post said in an editorial today. "Equally astonishing is that it should have bungled matters so badly as to raise the possibility that other animals may have been infected. Worse still, it now appears that the virus originates in ducks rather than chickens, something the public was not previously told."

    Agriculture and Fisheries Department Director Lessie Wei offered to resign on Friday over the handling of the crisis. "I should take the blame because I was there," she said. "If my resignation is going to solve the problem, I will consider it."

    But Apple Daily said in its editorial today that Wei should not be made the only scapegoat. "Total responsibility should not be borne by her," the paper said, naming Tung and Fok.

    Anson Chan, Hong Kong's chief secretary and top civil servant, today seemed to rule out any resignations. "We do not pretend that the whole thing has gone off 100 percent smoothly," she said. The government would review its handling of the crisis once the slaughter and removal of carcasses is complete, she added. It is not known when the operation will be finished.

    The Sing Pao newspaper delivered what for Tung must be the most stinging of all criticisms -- an unflattering comparison with his predecessor, Chris Patten, the last British governor of colonial Hong Kong.

    Referring to Tung's invisibility, Sing Pao said in its editorial, "Chief executive Tung Chee-hwa paid a belated visit to the poultry distribution and retail markets -- former governor Chris Patten immediately would have visited any major accident scene."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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