22 May 2008

A Test of Heavenly Proportions

(From Sinotaenous)

In the most vulnerable hour, China has looked its most sympathetic.

If the Chinese communist government failed miserably in its first test of the year, during the Tibet uprising and subsequent worldwide torch relay, then it's getting at least a passing grade in its handling of the Sichuan earthquake tragedy. In some quarters, it's getting rave reviews.

The adroit and deft management of such a humanitarian disaster has earned the Chinese government some breathing room. But it should not be surprising. If anything, Hu Jintao has shown during his tenure that he's a quick study and much more in tune with the fast-changing nature of global public relations.

For starters, the quake came on the heels of Burma's devastating cyclone, during which its military junta deservedly earned universal scorn. So whatever Beijing did was probably going to be viewed more favorably. But Hu was even smarter than that.

Understanding that the flow of information would be difficult to stop in such a chaotic environment, he instead allowed it to transmit relatively freely. The world got a rare unfiltered glimpse of sorrow and grief of a nation and its people and understandably lavished them with ample amounts of sympathy. And China's surprising decision to swiftly allow foreign aid groups to reach the disaster area gave credence to the notion that its government took responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.

Rescue teams from Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan gained nearly immediate access to the disaster zone. Untold number of lives were perhaps saved because of this action. Contrast that with how Russia handled the sinking of the submarine Kursk in 2000, when Vladimir Putin let his sailors die on the sea floor instead of swallowing national pride to allow foreign help. In this case, China lost face hardly at all. Instead, it's widely viewed as a shining example of a growing global village that thrives on mutual assistance.

The cynical among us might question the true motives of the Chinese government, but no one can question that the event was unplanned and the swift response was un-rehearsed. The Chinese view momentous events, like a massive earthquake, as heavenly intervention. In this context, the communist government shook to its core, but came out with the right answers.

Hu and his inner circle know that the groundswell of sympathy and support will not last forever, so they best take advantage of this goodwill and use it as a foundation to build more trust. There are indications that they will. Hu's conciliatory gesture toward Taiwan, including the unearthing of the rarely invoked "1992 Consensus" was well received. His willingness to at least engage Dalai Lama's representatives -- whether it's somewhat coerced or not -- has helped to cool the Free Tibet fever.

So just where is China headed from here? That's becoming more interesting and complex by the day. If anything, the earthquake may have ended the days when China sealed all outside contact at the first sign of internal distress. And with that as the new reality, China might be on the verge of yet another transformation.

For the better, we hope. Perhaps it's a mandate from Heaven?

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