HONG KONG — In the clearest sign yet of how seriously China is taking the swine flu outbreak, President Hu Jintao convened a meeting on Thursday morning of the Standing Committee of the Politburo — the nine men who run China — that was immediately announced.
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It is rare for China’s authorities to disclose any meeting of the standing committee, and particularly to do so as soon as the meeting ended.
“I don’t know if it has ever occurred before — it is really, really unusual,” said Cheng Li, the director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution.
After struggling to cope six years ago with an outbreak of SARS, the Chinese leadership is taking a much more visible approach now to swine flu. Premier Wen Jiabao held a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning to discuss preparations for the disease and call for an interagency effort to address it. President Hu announced a few hours later that China was stepping up its inspection and quarantine procedures for people and imports of pigs and pork products.
And on Wednesday, Vice Premier Li Keqiang toured the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing and called for manufacturers to produce more face masks, sterilization chemicals and flu medicines.
East Asia, Central Asia and South Asia have not yet had a laboratory-confirmed case of swine flu, although suspected cases are being tested, notably in South Korea and Hong Kong. But flu experts predict that the disease will arrive in the region soon, if it has not already.
Dr. Guan Yi, a microbiologist at Hong Kong University, said that China and India will face particular challenges in coping with swine flu because both countries have more than a billion people, many of them living close together.
“We need to believe this virus has a chance to go to every corner of the world — the only question is how fast,” he said.
The energetic response by Beijing officials resembles the swift response by the leadership to the Sichuan earthquake almost a year ago. One difference is that Mr. Wen clearly led relief efforts in Sichuan, while there has been more of a collective response by the leadership this time.
“When this kind of natural disaster or health care crisis happens, the top leadership reacts very quickly, they think they can get more public support,” Mr. Li at the Brookings Institution said.
This signifies a big change since SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Government officials hid the outbreak for four months, even concealing patients at closed military hospitals, before the disease spread to Hong Kong and then around the world.
The novel form of flu now moving around the globe is politically more palatable for China because it made its first appearance far from its shores.
The new flu does have a genetic segment that has been identified as coming from pigs in Eurasia, prompting the Mexican ambassador to China to suggest that his country should not be blamed for the disease. But flu specialists say the disease appears to have jumped to people in Mexico.
China’s agriculture ministry said on Wednesday that swine flu had not been found in the country’s pigs and that China had not been the origin of the virus.
Heavy news media attention to the issue in Hong Kong, where the government is holding daily televised briefings, may have also raised awareness of the disease in mainland China. Extensive and growing Internet traffic, phone calls and actual visits increasingly bind the two populations together.
Donald Tsang, the chief executive of Hong Kong, on Thursday toured a local hospital specializing in the treatment of respiratory diseases and said that despite precautions, including health checks on people arriving at the city’s airport, the disease would reach Hong Kong.
“We estimate that pandemic flu will continue to spread and Hong Kong is very likely to be affected,” he said.