China's Year of the Rat, which began in February, has produced more than its fair share of shocks for the modern-day mandarins of Beijing. The earthquake that ripped a hole in the heart of the country is but the latest rollercoaster crisis to rock the Chinese leadership's vision of a smoothly advancing 21st century superpower. On this occasion, reports from the disaster zone suggest they have responded well so far.
This was always going to be a big year for China, with the Olympics taking pride of place. Its leaders insist sport and politics do not mix. But the Games have been shamelessly commandeered as a matchless platform on which to celebrate a national coming of age.
Critics of China’s domestic and foreign policies have reacted with similar single-mindedness, most recently turning the Olympic torch relay into a running commentary on Beijing’s behavior in Tibet. The controversy that followed the spring crackdown in Lhasa, in particular the Chinese state media’s ugly abuse of the saint-like Dalai Lama, alienated friends and foes alike.
The mistake has since been recognized and corrected. Like a previous spasm of nationalist ire aimed at perfidious Japan, officially rehabilitated this month as a valued Asian partner, the Tibet rhetoric tap has been quietly turned off. Beijing has agreed to resume talks, albeit limited and largely symbolic, with representatives of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader. In a similar vein, China is organizing a conference on Darfur next month, apparently to defuse Western criticism of its collaboration with Sudan.
The change of tack, driven to a degree by increasingly unstoppable media and Internet openness, fits a pattern of growing awareness among ruling cadres of the importance of winning the battle of popular perceptions. There was a time, not long ago, when the Communist Party gave not a fig for the world’s opinions or those of China’s peasant masses — and was not afraid to say so. That changed when modernizing technocrat President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) replaced old-school apparatchik Jiang Zemin (江澤民).
Though still a conservative figure in many ways, Hu’s swift reaction to and personal involvement in the relief effort — he convened an emergency meeting of the politburo’s standing committee on Monday evening — accurately reflects his “New China” brand of user-friendly politics. So, too, does the decision to send Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) to Sichuan while simultaneously mobilizing the army.
US President George W. Bush’s Hurricane Katrina debacle, former Russian president Vladimir Putin’s Kursk submarine disgrace and the Myanmar junta’s reckless incompetence have provided helpful lessons on how not to do disasters. China’s leaders will have noticed the extent to which, as in Bush’s case, fumbling at the top at a time of national crisis can destroy political reputation and legitimacy.
Beijing’s unelected and ever more frequently criticized power elite is vulnerable on this score. It needs all the prestige and authority it can muster if it is to ride this latest tiger and the possible aftershocks, political and social.
“The government is responding very quickly despite the difficult wet conditions,” a Chinese official said. “The whole country is pulling together. Rescue teams are pouring in from all over the country. People are queuing to give blood. This is a time of solidarity.”