Response to Quake Prompts Burst of Acclaim for Leaders

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 24, 2008

BEIJING, May 23 -- The official New China News Agency reported the other day that people around the world are suggesting that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao deserve a Nobel Prize for their handling of the Sichuan earthquake.

The idea, based on what the agency said was a flood of Internet messages, might have seemed premature outside the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Bureau, which controls what the agency reports. But it reflected official enthusiasm over an unmistakable burst of popularity for China's top leaders and widespread applause for their on-the-scene encouragement to quake victims and rescue teams digging through the rubble.

The party's propaganda mandarins have done their part, ordering television and newspaper editors to focus on rescue efforts and the mobilization of solidarity. But many of the country's 1.3 billion people also have seemed genuinely moved to respond to the crisis, coming together behind the government and volunteering money, goods and time.

"Patriotism has risen to its highest level in the face of the earthquake," said Kang Xiaoguang, a sociologist at Renmin University in Beijing who monitors public opinion. "Chinese people are of one heart in combating the disaster."

Xie Liping, 28, a saleswoman in Beijing, said she and her family have discussed the government's performance nightly over the past week and concluded that things have improved markedly from past crises. "They really did a great job," she said.

For the moment, at least, the May 12 quake also has relieved pressure from abroad. Before the disaster, governments and human rights groups were criticizing China's record in Tibet, its response to humanitarian concerns in Sudan's Darfur region and its unwillingness to push the military junta in Burma to accept foreign aid workers following Tropical Cyclone Nargis. But the foreign complaints, which seemed to be building in advance of the Beijing Olympics, have been drowned out by condolences and offers of help to earthquake victims.

The question now has become whether Hu and his lieutenants can make the glow last. The heroic rescue operations documented by photographers have largely halted, giving way to the long, thankless business of burying bodies and bulldozing ruins. With millions of peasants living in tents -- and no prospect of them returning home anytime soon -- the challenge for the party has only begun.

As a result, it is too early to assess the impact of the initial response on China's political evolution, according to Zhang Ming, a political scientist at People's University in Beijing.

"There are two kinds of possibilities, long-term and short-term, that determine whether the earthquake will be a turning point in the Chinese government's reform efforts," Zhang said. "Will the government only focus on the disaster temporarily, and then return to normal for everything else? Or will the government make some reforms as a result of the earthquake?"

When a devastating earthquake struck Mexico in 1985, the government's poor performance played an important role in loosening the Institutional Revolutionary Party's long grip on power. Mexicans were particularly outraged that the army stood by, guarding against looting, while victims died in the ruins.

In China, however, the Communist Party has so far been seen reacting swiftly and decisively. The People's Liberation Army has been particularly visible in rescue and relief operations, flying in supplies by helicopter and marching up mountain trails where roads were cut off by landslides.

The soldiers' role, following a widely reported relief operation during severe ice storms last winter, may soften the resentment still felt by some Chinese over the army's bloody suppression of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. But it was the Communist Party's role in deploying vast government resources and mobilizing official and unofficial volunteer groups for quake relief that left the most vivid impression among the public.

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