Wed, May 14, 2008 - Page 4 News List

Spate of tragedies mars celebration of Olympics

AP , BEIJING

China hoped 2008 would be a yearlong celebration, a time to bask in the spotlight of the upcoming Summer Olympics, but the Year of the Rat has brought a wave of disasters, both man-made and otherwise, that are putting a heavy strain on the communist leadership.

Monday's earthquake was only the latest in a series of catastrophes that included freak snowstorms and a Tibetan uprising.

China has long experience with large-scale disasters wrought both by Mother Nature and mankind, from coal mine explosions to chemical spills to floods that displace tens of thousands annually.

The central government prides itself on its ability to quickly react, usually with deployments from China's massive military corps.

The ruling party's mandate in part rests on being able to deliver aid in emergencies.

But China's capacity to control disasters and how they play out in the media is being stretched this year. Its leaders are grappling with the fallout from multiple problems in the information-hungry Internet age when they had expected to focus only on the Olympics Games.

"The Olympics are an important symbol of China's effort to ... get on the same gauge with the rest of the world. So they have attached a lot of importance to them," said Roger Des Forges, a China historian at University at Buffalo, New York. "But for most Chinese people, they are secondary to the quality of life that they are trying to achieve. So these questions of disasters are uppermost in people's minds, watching how the government is going to deal with them."

On Monday, China was quick to show its public response. Just hours after the quake, Premier Wen Jiabao (皞怠振撖? flew into Sichuan Province to oversee the emergency relief effort. Speaking from the town of Juyuan, where a school collapsed and buried some 900 students, Wen acknowledged on national TV that the task would be "especially challenging."

China's disasters began just before Lunar New Year, when the worst winter storms in five decades hit the densely populated southern and central regions.

In March, anti-government riots erupted in Lhasa, sparking sympathy protests in Tibetan areas across western China. The violent protests were the biggest challenge to Chinese rule in the Himalayan region in nearly two decades.

The subsequent crackdown brought sharp international criticism of Beijing's human rights record and its rule over Tibet.

China has said 22 people were killed, while Tibetan groups have said many times that number died in the violence.

The negative attention spilled over to the Olympic torch relay. Meant to be a feel-good kickoff event, it turned into chaos as pro-Tibet protesters mounted demonstrations at stops including London, Paris and San Francisco.

The bad news kept coming. Last month came China's worst train accident in a decade, leaving 72 dead and more than 400 injured when a high-speed passenger train jumped its tracks and slammed into another in rural Shandong Province.

This month also brought a sharp rise in the number of reported cases of hand, foot and mouth disease, a normally non-deadly infection that has killed 39 children this year.

Only last week's feat by a mixed team of Tibetan and Han Chinese mountaineers in bringing the torch up Mount Everest gave China the positive publicity it craved, three months to the day before the start of the games.

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