Amid the tragedy lies opportunity

Times Staff Writer

On television screens around the world, images of protesting Tibetan monks and an Olympic torch doused by protesters have been replaced by footage of Chinese rescuers pulling children out of the wreckage of this week's massive earthquake.

The country is in pain and mourning.

But the tragedy that struck Monday, and has taken more than 12,000 lives, also has given China an opportunity for a dramatic image makeover. After months of relentless coverage of Tibetan clashes and human rights abuses, the earthquake shows a new China, one that is both compassionate and competent.

Given how difficult it is for journalists, foreign or Chinese, to reach the mountainous epicenter, much of the footage seen at home and abroad so far comes from state-owned CCTV television.

Rescue workers in crisp orange jumpsuits dig efficiently through the rubble. Troops well-equipped with face masks and helmets handle cranes, forklifts, bulldozers. Nurses look capable as they carry out victims, IV bottles held above their heads. Even the victims appear well-dressed as they emerge from the dust, faces contorted in shock and pain.

The coverage strikes a delicate balance between eliciting sympathy and depicting China as a developed country. For the domestic audience, the Chinese media have given extensive coverage to messages of condolence and offers of assistance from President Bush and other world leaders.

Jin Canrong, a professor at People's University in Beijing, said it should allay the anger of the many young Chinese complaining lately about "China bashing" by Western countries. "The earthquake can help to relieve the mutual distrust and resentment from both sides," he said.

In the days to come, China's handling of its worst natural disaster in three decades will be closely scrutinized at home and abroad. How open will the government be about the number of casualties and extent of damage? How competent will it be in the rescue effort?

China will have a chance to prove that it is not neighboring Myanmar, which came under sharp condemnation for its reluctance to accept foreign aid after it was hit by a cyclone this month, and that it is not the same old China that used to cover up its misfortunes.

In 1976, the last time an earthquake comparable to Monday's magnitude 7.9 temblor struck here, China refused aid from the United Nations. It did not allow foreigners into the most affected city, Tangshan, for seven years.

This time, wary of any suggestion that China is closed to outsiders, officials are taking pains to be gracious about international assistance, accepting offers of supplies while profusely apologizing that they cannot admit foreign aid workers.

Catastrophes, whether natural or man-made, frequently are challenging to authoritarian governments, which have an almost knee-jerk reaction to conceal bad news.

When the earthquake struck Monday afternoon, the Chinese government at first followed its natural instinct. Within a few hours after the quake, the Communist Party's central propaganda department issued an order that Chinese news organizations not send reporters to the scene, but instead only use material from CCTV or from the official New China News Agency.

What happened next, however, indicates how much China has changed.

Realizing the symbolic importance of the moment, Premier Wen Jiabao rushed to the scene, and was widely photographed kneeling in the wreckage, consoling victims and advising rescue teams.

And Chinese media broadly ignored the propaganda department's order. Many newspapers and regional television stations sent reporters to the scene.

By Tuesday, the propaganda department appeared to have given up, and simply instructed that journalists "implement the spirit of the central government and use a reporting tone stressing unity, stability and positive publicity," according to a journalist who had read the order.

"We are in a completely different era now -- the propaganda department can't stop journalists from reporting," said Li Datong, former editor of a supplement of the China Youth Daily.

Although reporting on subjects such as Tibetan unrest or protests over the coming Olympics remain taboo, Li said, the government has grudgingly accepted that it must allow free reporting of disasters to prevent people from panicking.

"There is no shame associated with natural disasters," said Jeremy Goldkorn, who runs a media blog out of Beijing.

Goldkorn, a frequent critic of China's media policies, said the Chinese government was doing a "pretty good" job of getting out information on the earthquake.

"That doesn't mean that everything is going to be groovy and liberal from now on, but considering where they came from, you can see how much has changed," he said.

China badly needs to repair its international image in time for the Olympic Games, which will begin in Beijing on Aug. 8.

Many VIPs have threatened to sit out the opening ceremonies because of concerns about China's human rights record.

The relay of the Olympic torch from Athens to the Chinese capital was a global embarrassment, with protests at nearly every stop over issues ranging from Tibet to Darfur.

Critics accuse China, which has close economic ties to Sudan, of failing to pressure the government to stop what Washington has termed a genocide in the African country's western region.

Scandals over tainted products from China also have damaged Beijing's standing with the international community.

A swift and competent reaction to the earthquake is crucial domestically, as well.

The Chinese government came under criticism at home for a lethargic response to freak snowstorms that paralyzed the south of the country during the Chinese New Year.

Wen, who is also a geologist, offered not only sympathy but also expertise on the nature of earthquakes.

Peng Zongchao, a crisis management expert as Qinghua University, said that China would try to show its own people and the world that it can handle a disaster more effectively than a democratic country such as the United States.

"If you compare this to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the United States could not get the military involved quickly, you will see the Chinese government has big advantages in mobilizing," Peng said. "They want to show that they are capable."

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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