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China last week mounted a surprisingly aggressive mobilization in hopes of averting an avian flu pandemic that has the potential to hobble Asia's economy and slam global growth. This is a far cry from Beijing's response to the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Then, China restricted press coverage as it initially covered up a health crisis that left hundreds dead. Moreover, it caused many at home and abroad to question whether the Communist government's civil leadership would ever equal its economic prowess.
But today there are encouraging signs that China is maturing in how it views its responsibilities as a global leader. Its political leaders have continued opening markets to foreign competition (often against the wishes of powerful local interests), while becoming a bit more vigilant about protecting intellectual property -- a major issue for foreign investors. Beijing's leadership in brokering the ongoing multilateral talks to encourage North Korea to dial back its nuclear ambitions has given China even more diplomatic legitimacy as a true power in the Asia-Pacific region. Now, Beijing's openness about bird flu takes that one step further.
To be sure, given China's famously opaque political system, it's always perilous to read too much into Beijing's shifts. And its leaders continue to curb internal political dissent. Still, China's emerging leadership in nascent world crises could have big implications for how the nation will address a range of pressing concerns, everything from its growing impact on the economies of trading partners to its long-standing dispute over the status of Taiwan. That certainly would be a positive development for China -- and for global stability.