Sichuan Earthquake Could Change China's Leadership

Hu Rong, 43, watches emergency crews erect a mile-long tent city along Happiness Avenue. Since a magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit Sichuan province on May 12, her home in the city of Dujiangyan has been a small tarpaulin, a couple of planks and one bamboo chair by the road. Times were bad already; Hu hasn't had regular work since the uranium mine went out of business in 1994. Still, her week had one bright spot: soon after the quake, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited an aid station nearby. Hu raced over. "I wanted to see for myself that the prime minister had really come here and that he came so fast," she says, with steady pride. "We were very moved."

An unbelievable tragedy, the Sichuan earthquake has nevertheless given China's leaders a chance to repair the country's battered image, and they're determined not to blow it. Many survivors told of seeing Wen in person as he toured the disaster zone, and TV newscasts showed him wielding a bullhorn and begging exhausted rescue teams not to give up: "Every second lost could mean lives lost!" An estimated 10 percent of Dujiangyan's buildings were destroyed, including a high school where some 900 students were attending their midafternoon classes. Chen Gang, a volunteer helping with crowd control at a collapsed market, says Wen's visit made a huge difference. "He is so much worried. You can see it in his eyes," says the 49-year-old executive. Late in the week President Hu Jintao made his own televised tour of the area, clasping hands with survivors in one of the hardest-hit spots, the little mountain-valley city of Beichuan, where a few untoppled buildings poke out at crazy angles from landslides that smashed entire apartment blocks.

China took a beating for its ham-handed response to the Tibetan riots in March. But this crisis is different. For one thing, it's exactly the kind of problem at which the Beijing leadership excels: a test of mass mobilization and logistics. At the weekend nearly 29,000 were confirmed dead, although the government said the final toll might run as high as 50,000, and 4 million homes had been damaged or destroyed. In response, 130,000 soldiers and about 100 helicopters were sent to comb the wreckage for survivors. Officials emphasized emergency shipments to places like Aba prefecture, a scene of ethnic Tibetan violence in March. And Beijing's handling of the quake was even more impressive next to the horror in Burma, where the official death toll from Cyclone Nargis is likely to keep climbing far past 78,000, worsened only by the junta's lackadaisical attitude toward survivors.

Moderates like Wen seem to have learned from the Burmese example, as well as Beijing's own mistakes. Shi Anbin, professor of media studies at Tsinghua University, cites three basic rules for public communications in a crisis: "Tell the truth, tell it fast and tell it first." China's authorities neglected those principles in Tibet, he says. "Their earthquake response is the very first time they've lived up to international standards."

The results are unpredictable. The shocking immediacy of the news coverage touched off an explosion of civic action. On the outskirts of shattered towns like Hanwang, police set up checkpoints where people from outside could drop off their contributions. Deng Zhigang, a Red Cross medic there, says volunteers are driving from as far away as Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou with donations of food, medicine and clothing. "The government can call up more people, but we don't need that call," says Mu Jin, an economics student from Chengdu Normal University. "We came anyway."

Such enthusiasm can turn quickly. Government-run reconstruction programs can't hope to match such an unprecedented display of personal generosity. As days drag into months, people are sure to grow impatient and angry that the cleanup isn't happening faster, and to question shoddy construction in the area. That would make a perfect opportunity to attack official corruption at the roots—and to wrest some good from a monstrous tragedy.