China's leaders were jolted from the pageantry of the National People's Congress last spring when SARS spread rapidly, after low-level officials had dismissed the outbreak as insignificant. The crisis threatened to undermine the economy, China's global reputation and the mandate of its just-named leadership.
This would not be the first time, nor the last, that China's top officials were blindsided by inadequate or embellished information from below. Other recent surprises have reportedly included the election of Chen Shui-bian as Taiwan's president in 2000 and a huge pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong last July -- both viewed by Beijing as challenges to its rule.
"China's top leaders are absolutely aware of this problem," said Yang Zhaohui, a scholar of Communist Party history. "Improving what they know and when they know it is a big priority. They don't have the political power Mao [Tse-tung] had and can't afford big mistakes."
Leaders in every nation face problems marshaling information to make good policy. But China's systemic limits on telling the truth arguably result in a less solid foundation for making decisions and a longer lead time before the "Houston, we have a problem" message hits their desks.
Leaders in Western-style democracies are bombarded daily, even hourly, by opinion polls, opposition lawmakers, independent think tanks, irate interest groups, the media and vocal civic groups. Meanwhile, those behind the walls of Beijing's Zhongnanhai leadership compound enjoy a more rarefied world of relatively hushed tones and unabashed respect.
Although reforms are underway across Chinese society and the new leadership appears to be more open, there are clear limits. Newspapers still downplay or ignore sensitive topics in favor of positive news. Civic groups are in their infancy and are closely watched. There is no political opposition. The Internet is restricted. And the glass is mostly half full when it comes to official Communist Party and government reports.
"Traditionally, our way of handling bad information has been to keep it secret," said Ma Ling, a biographer of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. "With SARS, they realized they were getting information late. It was a real turning point in Chinese politics."
Although the severe acute respiratory syndrome fallout made pointedly clear the cost of traditional Chinese information policies and the benefits of more accurate reporting, analysts say old habits die hard in a system that has long relied on party reports, news organizations and personal emissaries to inform decision makers. Nor is it clear whether these lessons will stick without pressure from the top.
Government and party reports are among the most formal information sources for China's decision makers. But their authors remain under some pressure to support the leaders' current campaign -- or say what they think leaders want to hear, analysts say.
"Generally there's a 90% gap between what's in the reports and reality," one party member said. "I know. I worked as a party secretary and had to draft many of those reports."
The reports are certainly closer to reality than they were in the days of Mao, and most people acknowledge that the more open style of the current administration is encouraging. But there's still relatively little incentive to include unpleasant news in official records, given that it could cost you your job.
Chinese statistics have faced particular accuracy problems, as many cadres turn to creative accounting to help further their careers. As one Chinese expression puts it: "Officials make the statistics, and statistics make the official."
Li Deshui, head of China's National Statistics Bureau, said in December that 18,300 "unlawful acts in statistics" were uncovered in 2002, according to the People's Daily, the Communist Party's newspaper.
Another information source for decision makers are the media. Although a growing number of publications have shed overt state ownership and face tougher market competition, anyone with a printing press or transmitter remains under close scrutiny. This arguably makes them of limited value as harbingers of trouble or changing political landscapes.
"There's a lot of things we can't write," a reporter at one paper said.
Parallel to the official media, however, and traditionally more useful for decision makers, are so-called neican -- limited-distribution information sheets for the top echelon that contain information the party deems too sensitive for ordinary Chinese.
"These are the most important way for party and government officials to learn about bad news," said Hu Xingdou, a social science professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. "Normally, things that go into neican are resolved very quickly, although there are some issues that even neican won't touch," such as military affairs and high-level corruption.
In one recent example, a clinic in Hunan province inoculated 9,000 villagers against a deadly local epidemic using expired medicine. Left out of news reports, but included in neican, were more damning details: The staff was bloated, the clinic had huge cost overruns, and people's health was taking a back seat to profits.
As China's market economy expands and its obsession with secrecy wanes, some neican are being used differently.
"Many are gradually losing their exclusivity," said Gui Xiaoqi, chief editor of National Land Today magazine.
Insiders say some lower-level neican have even become profit centers for ministries, which sell them to outsiders for their value as status symbols or tools in making government connections. As low-level neican become more widely distributed, however, new, exclusive neican are created in their wake for top leaders, analysts say.
A third traditional source of information for decision makers are emissaries. China's leaders are canny -- after all, they clawed their way to the top of the Communist Party by writing happy-news reports themselves -- and most have expressed skepticism at the quality of information they receive.
"Even leaders are suspicious of the data," said Victor Yuan, chairman of Horizon Group, a polling organization.
Mao and his successor, Deng Xiaoping, both groused about how underlings always omitted bad news. Then-Premier Zhu Rongji reportedly told a local party secretary a few years ago: "Stop, stop. Don't give me empty numbers. I want the truth."
In response, leaders dating back to Mao have relied on personal emissaries for reality checks. Mao, Deng and other leaders often asked trusted drivers, maids and bodyguards to report back on "real life" outside Beijing when visiting their hometowns. Sometimes, leaders do their own reconnaissance. Premier Wen has reportedly visited 1,800 of China's 2,053 counties over the course of his career. Wary of blustery local official reports, he's been known to divert his motorcade down side roads without warning to get the "real story" from farmers and workers about how local party officials are doing.
Other sources include government-linked study organizations such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the State Council's research institutions and certain university departments.
"The problem has been that they're all affiliated," said Zhao Liqing, professor at the Communist Party's Central Party School. "Now the top leaders want to reform these institutions, but it's very difficult. Only very pleasing news goes smoothly to the top."
Many information channels, historians say, echo those used by Chinese emperors hundreds of years ago.
"Hu and Wen sending private emissaries to get information in secret, for example, is exactly like the Song Dynasty," which lasted from 960 to 1279, said Deng Xiaonan, a Beijing University history professor.
The new tools that leaders are using more include the Internet, hearings and polling, experts say. In recent years, the government has invested heavily in online blocking technology and Internet police to track and contain dissent, appraise young people's view of the party and assess public opinions on Taiwan, democracy and other issues.
Feedback from polling and public hearings is used more and more before new policies are enacted, said Jun Yanliu, president of the Youth Talent Research Institute, a government affiliate.
With the top demanding more accurate information even as the system punishes those who are too honest, local officials find themselves in a tough situation, experts say.
"It's very difficult to report to the central leaders these days," Communist Party expert Yang said. "They don't know whether to tell the truth or to lie -- both have risks. They increasingly have to figure out which risk is greater."