Outpouring of Help Shifts Mood in China

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
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

BEIJING, May 26 -- An unprecedented and politically significant flood of foreign aid has been pledged to China since the devastating Sichuan earthquake, ranging from a $50 million Saudi Arabian check to crates of cellphones from Nokia.

The outpouring of goodwill has been interpreted by many Chinese as a welcome demonstration of their new status as a major power with friends around the world. But to a large degree, it has also dissipated a sour, nationalistic mood that had swollen up in response to foreign criticism of a harsh Chinese security crackdown after Tibetan riots in March.

"This is making up for a lot of the bad feelings of recent months," said Shi Yinhong, a foreign affairs specialist at Renmin University's International Relations Institute.

When the earthquake struck May 12, killing more than 65,000 people and leaving millions homeless, the Foreign Ministry rejected immediate offers of assistance by foreign rescue teams. The reaction was in line with China's traditionally wary attitude toward foreign involvement in internal affairs.

But several days later, the ministry announced a reversal, and specialists from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Russia and Singapore were allowed in. Some reports said People's Liberation Army soldiers in the disaster zone displayed hostility toward the Japanese team. But broad public opinion seemed to welcome the group despite lingering resentment here over Japanese atrocities in World War II.

"Although the Japanese group did not save any lives, Chinese people praised them and no one mentioned the unpleasant history with Japan," noted Li Datong, a senior magazine editor who was dismissed over an essay dealing with World War II.

More significantly, perhaps, Foreign Ministry spokesmen were appealing for help from anywhere abroad within a week of the quake, particularly for tents to provide temporary housing to the countless Sichuan residents who will be living in camps for what promises to be a long rebuilding period.

The new stand was in sharp contrast to that of neighboring Burma, an ally whose leaders were declining aid for victims of a cyclone on May 2-3. It was also a departure for China, which typically accepts only small amounts of aid in times of crisis.

In response to its appeals, China has received more than $158 million in cash and $35 million in goods so far from foreign governments. In addition, international and regional organizations have pledged nearly $12 million in cash and $700,000 in goods.

Perhaps just as significantly, the list of donor countries spans the globe, reinforcing the idea that China has integrated into the rest of the world and forged friendly relations with most other governments. This had been a central theme of the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing. But it was overshadowed in part by the tension over Tibet and protests against the Olympic torch relay -- a shadow that now seems to be receding.

"I think the Chinese government feels this reaction to the earthquake is a good development that can bring back a good Olympic spirit," Shi said.

"The Chinese government will learn something from this experience," Li added. "As time goes by, it is not impossible that the Dalai Lama will appear in the Olympic ceremony."

Saudi Arabia, which donated $50 million in cash and another $10 million in goods, has been the most forthcoming foreign government. The Bush administration has given $2.8 million so far and announced plans to donate more as relief plans progress. U.S. satellites have been providing imagery of earthquake damage, the U.S. Embassy said, and U.S. military transports flew into Sichuan with relief supplies.

In addition, the American Red Cross has promised to provide more than $10 million to its Chinese counterpart, and U.S. companies operating in China have pledged about $34 million.

Other foreign companies in China also have offered to help, including Finnish firm Nokia, which has sent cellphones to the quake zone. Carrefour, the French supermarket chain that was widely attacked during the Tibet crisis, sent tents, food and water. In all, the Commerce Ministry said, foreign companies in China have pledged more than $280 million in money and goods.

The number of donor governments has reached almost 80, the Foreign Ministry said, and continues to grow. India, for instance, has pledged $5 million and Tonga $50,000. Norway said it would send $4.1 million in cash and goods and Nigeria offered $2 million.

President Hu Jintao expressed public thanks for the foreign assistance. In the same spirit, Premier Wen Jiabao went out of his way to be photographed amid the earthquake ruins with the visiting U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

Falling in line, the Communist Party's propaganda apparatus signaled the official mood had changed, producing friendly comments in an official news media that only a few weeks ago was bristling at foreign governments and foreign journalists for the way they viewed Tibet.

Part of the shift was also due to generally favorable coverage in the foreign news media of the party's swift response to the disaster. Internet commentators who had bitterly criticized CNN over its Tibet coverage, for instance, switched gears and started praising the U.S.-based news network for its moving earthquake coverage, Li pointed out.

"With more and more aid from the international community for disaster relief, the Chinese people have got a chance to see how the country has been integrated with the rest of the world," said a commentary from the official New China News Agency.

"This has also made it a necessity for the people of this country to understand what such integration means," it continued. "While appreciating the humanitarian spirit displayed by foreigners who help us save lives and relieve the damage caused by this earthquake, China and the Chinese feel evermore the obligation they have to the making of a harmonious world."

Shift on One-Child Policy

Chinese officials said Monday that families with a child killed, severely injured or disabled in the Sichuan earthquake would be exempted from the country's one-child policy.

Officials have not been able to estimate how many children were among the more than 65,000 killed. In large parts of rural China, most families are already allowed a second child, especially if the first was a girl.

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