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CHINA: Quake Helps Mend Image After Tibet Crackdown

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, May 15 2008 (IPS) - A sense of solemnity has enveloped most activities in the Chinese capital these days. Even the avant-garde shows in town strike a note of bereavement for the 50,000 people estimated to have perished in the deadly earthquake this week.

"Let us grieve and be silent," were the opening remarks of modern dancer Jin Xing who held her much-anticipated performance only a day after the earthquake hit the south-western province of Sichuan. Wrapped up in an elegant black Chinese gown, she asked the audience to rise and observe a minute of silence. The she bowed and dedicated the performance of her celebrated dance troupe to the victims.

China has been shocked by the enormity of the disaster that hit with no warning. Hopes for the survival of some 25,000 people buried in the earthquake rubble faded Thursday when Beijing bowed to the inevitable and counted the missing in official death toll estimates. Officials said the death toll will be likely more than 50,000.

"If there are some survivors under such conditions, it would be a matter of luck, or a miracle," Zhang Zhoushu, vice director of the state-run China Earthquake Disaster Prevention Centre was quoted by the state television.

Premier Wen Jiabao, geologist by education, has described the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan as the "most destructive" in the country since 1949 – the year when the Communist party came to power.

It was even more powerful than the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, Wen was reported saying late Thursday at a meeting of the rescue headquarters in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

For millions of Chinese the memory of the Tangshan quake, which claimed anywhere between 240,000 to 650,000 lives, is a painful reminder of their country’s past backwardness and political isolation.

Nothing could be more different this time around. The country’s leadership has sprung up into action within hours of the disaster, mobilising tens of thousands of troops and dispatching the country’s populist premier to the scene of the disaster.

Highlighting a sea change since 1976’s quake when China refused aid from the United Nations and barred foreign aid workers and rescuers from the site of the disaster, this time Beijing accepted all foreign offers of aid. The first foreign rescue team – from Japan – arrived in the area Friday morning and was to be followed by teams from Russia, Singapore and other countries.

In another show of openness, for the past few days the state media has covered the rescue operations live. The coverage has elicited sympathy and struck a cord with a public brought up on a diet of secrecy and censorship in regard to bad news.

The outpouring of grief and compassion has been evident in the queues of people lining up to donate blood in Beijing, collecting clothes and blankets and raising money for the victims. Donations of money and goods have reached 877 million RMB (125 million US dollars) by Friday, the state media said.

"Don’t underestimate your strength, add to the effort to help, let’s stand all together," read an instant message distributed by China Mobile to its wireless phone users this week, appealing for people to donate money from their mobile account balances to the Red Cross Society of China.

The sudden disaster has united a nation that only a week ago was fuming with anger over the perceived foreign insults to its Olympic pride. Immensely proud of hosting the biggest sporting event for the first time, China had readied to showcase its modernity, development and win soft power on the international scene.

Instead, the country’s preparations for the August games were marred by protests in the restive region of Tibet and words of international condemnation for its harsh handling of minorities.

Bewildered by the perceived attempts to contain China’s rise, the public here had rallied against the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, for his attempts to split the country and accused foreign powers of trying to tarnish China’s reputation and spoil its Olympic party.

The relay of the Chinese Olympic torch – dubbed "the sacred flame" by Beijing – became a symbol of this nationalistic outburst. China’s angry youth, called "fen qing" in Chinese, took to the streets in cities like Seoul and Nagano to "safeguard" the torch from anti-China protesters, beating up some of them. As a result, China’s claims to succeeding on the strength of its soft power, were compromised.

But now the disaster has provided a much needed opportunity for the Chinese leadership to repair the damage to the country’s international image. From the rubble of the quake another face of China, humane and steadfast, has emerged.

Even the relay of the "sacred flame" has now been scaled down to reflect the country’s mourning. There will be a "premium on austerity", with less singing, dancing and speeches, and each new leg will begin with a minute’s silence, a spokesman for the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic games said after the earthquake.

"The scaling down will be a national show of sympathy," Sun Weide said. "We will reduce the scope of the torch relay and will simplify the procedures. We will focus on simplicity".

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