Quake helps mend China's image
By Antoaneta Bezlova
BEIJING - A sense of solemnity has enveloped most activities in the Chinese
capital as China has begun three days of mourning for the victims of the
devastating earthquake last week in Sichuan province. Flags are flying at
half-mast and a nationwide silence was observed on Monday morning to mark
exactly a week since the earthquake struck.
Trading at stock exchanges halted while the silence was observed. All public
entertainment has been canceled and presenters on state television wore black.
China has also
suspended the Olympic torch relay during the three-day mourning period.
Even the avant-garde shows in town strike a note of bereavement for the 50,000
people estimated to have perished in the deadly earthquake last week.
"Let us grieve and be silent," were the opening remarks of modern dancer Jin
Xing who held her much-anticipated performance only a day after the earthquake
hit the southwestern province of Sichuan. Wrapped up in an elegant black
Chinese gown, she asked the audience to rise and observe a minute of silence.
The she bowed and dedicated the performance of her celebrated dance troupe to
China has been shocked by the enormity of the disaster that hit with no warning
and has led to a confirmed death toll that now stands at 32,477. Officials say
the final toll may reach 50,000. More than 220,000 people have been injured.
Hopes for the survival of some 25,000 people buried in the earthquake rubble
faded last Thursday when Beijing bowed to the inevitable and counted the
missing in official death estimates.
"If there are some survivors under such conditions, it would be a matter of
luck, or a miracle," Zhang Zhoushu, vice director of the state-run China
Earthquake Disaster Prevention Center, was quoted as saying by the state
Premier Wen Jiabao, a geologist by education, has described the 7.9-magnitude
earthquake that hit Sichuan as the "most destructive" in the country since 1949
- the year when the Communist Party came to power. It was even more powerful
than the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, Wen was reported saying late on Thursday
at a meeting of the rescue headquarters in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan
For millions of Chinese, the memory of the Tangshan quake, which claimed
anywhere between 240,000 to 650,000 lives, is a painful reminder of their
country's past backwardness and political isolation.
Nothing could be more different this time around. The country's leadership had
sprung into action within hours of the disaster, mobilizing tens of thousands
of troops and dispatching the country's populist premier to the scene of the
Highlighting a sea change since 1976's quake when China refused aid from the
United Nations and barred foreign aid workers and rescuers from the site of the
disaster, this time Beijing accepted all foreign offers of aid. The first
foreign rescue team - from Japan - arrived in the area Friday morning and was
to be followed by teams from Russia, Singapore and other countries.
In another show of openness, the state media have covered the rescue operations
live. The coverage has elicited sympathy and struck a cord with a public
brought up on a diet of secrecy and censorship in regard to bad news.
The outpouring of grief and compassion has been evident in the queues of people
lining up to donate blood in Beijing, collecting clothes and blankets and
raising money for the victims. Donations of money and goods had reached 877
million yuan (US$125 million) by Friday, the state media said.
"Don't underestimate your strength, add to the effort to help, let's stand all
together," read an instant message distributed by China Mobile to its wireless
phone users this week, appealing for people to donate money from their mobile
account balances to the Red Cross Society of China.
The sudden disaster has united a nation that only a week ago was fuming with
anger over the perceived foreign insults to its Olympic pride. Immensely proud
of hosting the biggest sporting event for the first time, this August, China
had readied to showcase its modernity, development and win soft power on the
Instead, the country's preparations for the Games were marred by protests in
the restive region of Tibet and words of international condemnation for its
harsh handling of minorities.
Bewildered by the perceived attempts to contain China's rise, the public here
had rallied against the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, for his attempts
to split the country and accused foreign powers of trying to tarnish China's
reputation and spoil its Olympic party.
The relay of the Chinese Olympic torch - dubbed "the sacred flame" by Beijing -
became a symbol of this nationalistic outburst. China's angry youth, called fen
qing in Chinese, took to the streets in cities like Seoul and Nagano to
"safeguard" the torch from anti-China protesters, beating up some of them. As a
result, China's claims to succeeding on the strength of its soft power, were
But now the disaster has provided a much needed opportunity for the Chinese
leadership to repair the damage to the country's international image. From the
rubble of the quake another face of China, humane and steadfast, has emerged.
Even the relay of the "sacred flame" has now been scaled down to reflect the
country's mourning. When the relay resumes, there will be a "premium on
austerity", with less singing, dancing and speech-making, and each new leg will
begin with a minute's silence, a spokesman for the Beijing Organizing Committee
for the Olympic Games said after the earthquake.
"The scaling down will be a national show of sympathy," Sun Weide said. "We
will reduce the scope of the torch relay and will simplify the procedures. We
will focus on simplicity".