The massive earthquake struck China’s Southwest Sichuan province recently while Beijing was fending off criticism over its hard-line handling of the unrest in Tibet, backtracking on promised free access for journalists throughout China leading up to the summer Olympics and mounting its own hostile attack on the Western media.
China’s image in the West was turning negative. And given the military junta’s dismal handling of the cyclone that killed more than 100,000 in Burma only days earlier, the world held its breath on how China would react to its own disaster that so far left more than 55,000 dead and 5 million homeless - the worst in over three decades.
The world had good reason to worry. When the last mega-earthquake that killed 250,000 in Tangshan occurred in 1976, China was a closed society suffering from 10 years of internal political turmoil, and the government tightly controlled the flow of information, not so different from the generals of Burma today. Beijing did not mobilise a nationwide rescue and refused outside help.
Reform and openness that followed have changed China dramatically. But old habits die hard. The Chinese government’s initial cover-up of the SARS epidemic in 2003 led to deadly consequences around the world and indicated that China had a way to go before claiming to be a responsible world power.
With the world spotlight on China after the May 12 earthquake, the leaders wasted no time in taking decisive action, and what the world has witnessed since is one of the largest mobilisations and the most extensive rescue operations in response to a peacetime natural disaster in human history.
President Hu Jintao issued a nationwide call for an “all-out” effort in the rescue operation minutes after the earthquake; Premier Wen Jiabao immediately flew to the disaster zone to set up the relief command center; the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Operations Department implemented the emergency-response measures less than 30 minutes following the quake; and within 90 minutes, China’s 200-member elite search-and-rescue team boarded a plane in Beijing with equipment, medical supplies and search dogs.
The sheer political determination of the top leadership and hands on involvement helped in unprecedented mobilisation of all government resources. At the very core of the rescue-and-relief efforts is the rapid deployment of 130,000 PLA soldiers and paramilitary police forces within days of the disaster. The operation has moved 5 per cent of China’s 2.3 million military personnel to the disaster zones; it has co-ordinated joint movements of army, navy, air force and other units, which have engaged in air-dropping and parachuting, and moving relief supplies by railway, trucks and on-foot marches to isolated towns and villages. Hundreds of rescue and medical teams and hundreds of tons of needed supplies of all kinds have poured into the quake areas.
The Chinese media simultaneously broke away from traditional control and provided around-the-clock live coverage of the unfolding rescue operations. The images of a tearful Premier Wen in the epicentre comforting crying babies, the selfless young PLA soldiers clawing with bare hands in a desperate fight against time to save lives, the thousands of dead children under collapsed school buildings and the joy of survivors pulled from the rubble sent shockwaves throughout China and triggered a never-before-seen emotional response from the Chinese public.
The tragedy has rallied the nation and brought out the best in its citizens. The masses that were used to government-sponsored political movements in the past are now taking their own initiative: Lines of people donated blood and filled the blood banks, opened wallets to give cash now counting in the billions of RMBs, and rushed from far away, even from other countries, to volunteer in the disaster region.
Just as the opening of the domestic media galvanised the Chinese public, the free access given to foreign journalists in the quake areas has resulted in positive reporting by the foreign media, spurring worldwide sympathy toward the earthquake victims and praise for the Chinese government. China opened itself to the world for help, allowing foreign rescue and medial teams to enter the country for the first time to assist in relief operations, and accepting generous donations flooding in from around the globe.
Now the world has good reason to be impressed. Beijing’s rapid response to the current crisis, the heroic stories of survival and rescue, the nationwide outpouring of support and unprecedented open media coverage of relief efforts have produced more than tens of thousands of life-saving miracles. China has sent a clear message to the world that it is no Burma.
Chinese leaders have set an example for the xenophobic generals in Rangoon on how to execute a disaster-relief operation, which may well have influenced the Burmese decision to accept an ASEAN-led international assistance mission more than two weeks after the cyclone.
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