By Wieland Wagner in Shanghai
The prime minister shouts into the megaphone, he comforts weeping earthquake victims, he desperately sends off rescue squads to search for each and every survivor. China's TV viewers are currently experiencing, with unusual openness, how their prime minister, Wen Jiabao, is attempting to tackle the consequences of Monday's devastating earthquake.
The dramatic TV pictures come precisely from the very region that caused a worldwide sensation just two months ago: It was here, in the west of China, that the protests of the Tibetan minority broke out. At that time, the world saw another China. Beijing put down the protests with an iron fist and blocked Western reporters from entering the crisis area.
The Olympic host showed the world that it is a dictatorship, which -- despite all the protests -- stage-managed the Olympic torch relay as a demonstration of its power. It also showed itself to be an aspiring superpower, which -- at least initially -- encouraged nationalist hatred against Western media and companies among its own people and provoked a boycott of the French supermarket chain Carrefour.
Ironically, amid disaster a small seed of hope is growing. It appears that the Chinese leadership is willing to take advantage of the catastrophe -- not only to show more openness for the benefit of the domestic audience, but also to liberate China from its isolation in time for the Olympics.
Reconciliation has even been announced on state television, where nothing is ever said by chance. The TV announcers singled out Carrefour's offer of help for particular praise. The supermarket chain was reported to have offered money and tents to the victims.
Even the Olympic flame, which Beijing has symbolically paraded through the crisis region of Tibet -- right up to the summit of Mount Everest -- will now be carried through the country a bit less ostentatiously, out of respect for the victims.
China is certainly making full use of the earthquake in order to unite the nation behind the party with the usual political slogans. However, in contrast to previous disasters, such as the SARS epidemic, this time the communist leadership is displaying an unusual political sensitivity.
Perhaps they really have learned from their mistakes. In this Olympic year, the state and party have had more than enough opportunities to test their crisis management skills. First of all, a snow storm paralyzed large swathes of southeastern China, then the Tibetans protested and a train recently crashed in the Shandong province, killing 72 people and leaving 416 injured.
And now the earthquake. It is unlikely to have much of an impact on China's economic growth. After all, the earthquake region is in the relatively underdeveloped western part of the country. However, the massive destruction has hit China at a time when a plethora of other problems are threatening stability: record inflation, stock market losses, and the subprime crisis in the United States, China's most important export market.
The communist regime, which has based its power on double-digit growth figures, is alarmed. The leadership lost no time in protecting its own interests following this latest catastrophe: Prime Minister Wen rushed to the disaster area just two hours after the earthquake. Unlike the Burmese junta generals who kept urgent Western aid away from their suffering people, Beijing seems to the outside world to be behaving as a responsible great power.
In China, that's not self-evident. In these days of tragedy, Chinese leaders will likely be remembering the catastrophic earthquake that occurred in Tangshan in the summer of 1976 and claimed around 240,000 lives. Back then, the government of Chairman Mao played down the disaster. Many of his subjects saw the catastrophe as a sign that the heavens were stripping him of his power, and indeed the frail dictator died a few weeks later.
In the time since, three decades of reforms have made China a far more open place, and the time has long since passed when people could easily be ordered around as they could be in the time when Mao Zedong ran the country like a giant commune. Even in China, the powerful must win the support of the people.
That's why Premier Wen untiringly rushes around the country, like a firefighter hurrying to the spots where brushfires threaten to turn into forest fires. Wen consoles housewives complaining about high pork prices, villagers irked by the growing gap between rich and poor or, as seen this week, desperate earthquake victims.
Indeed, one of Wen's greatest strengths is his telegenic ability to express sympathy. He's been modestly introducing himself to earthquake victims as "Grandpa Wen."
At the same time, Wen the indefatigable crisis manager also embodies the fundamental structural weaknesses in China's political system.
In contrast to the West, the Chinese are unable to express their discontent through an independent press or through democratic elections. At the end of the day, the premier has to reach for the megaphone and take over crisis management himself whenever there's a particularly critical event which he obviously doesn't trust the often corrupt province and party bosses to handle.
China, representing a quarter of humanity, has become far too complex an entity to govern with yesterday's methods. The only way to ensure the long-term harmony which China's leaders so often evoke is for the country to undertake courageous political reforms that will create greater transparency and allow China's people more say in how their country is run.
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