Within 24 hours of China's deadly quake, some 20,000 troops converged on the disaster area to help dig out the dead and injured, and military planes and trucks ferried in another 30,000 reinforcements.
The rapid mobilization to stricken Sichuan Povince reflected the priority that China’s leadership places on delivering efficient disaster relief while showing the world it stands ready for anything that may come during the Olympics in August.
Following Monday’s 7.9-magnitude earthquake, Beijing’s Olympics organizers were due to scale down yesterday’s torch relay in the southeastern city of Ruijin and open with a moment of silence in a symbolic gesture to the thousands who died. This came in the face of mounting pressure on Chinese-language Web sites and blogs, which overwhelmingly favored some kind of moratorium — either now or next month when the torch enters Sichuan Province.
Gu Linsheng, a researcher with Tsinghua University’s Emergency Management Research Center, said the world’s sympathy for China’s latest crisis may help offset the negative publicity that has beset Beijing following deadly riots in Tibet earlier this year and scandals over tainted food, drugs and toys last year.
“After China was criticized for handling the Tibet crisis, the government hopes the response to the earthquake will leave the rest of the world a positive impression of the Chinese government — that it is truly for its people,” Gu said.
When the disaster struck, Beijing’s leaders were quick to signal a message of concern and action, as Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) called for an “all-out” effort to aid survivors. Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) flew to Sichuan Province to oversee relief efforts.
Rescue workers mounted a huge search effort with cranes and manpower to look for survivors under blocks of concrete and steel.
More than 50 people were pulled out alive, but the vast majority recovered were dead.
Even the air force was called in, with a plan to parachute troops to isolated disaster areas. It was later canceled because of heavy rain.
State media, often hesitant to report negative news, has been especially aggressive in covering the quake’s aftermath, running pictures of bloody victims and grieving relatives. China Central Television provided virtually 24-hour coverage, dispatching reporters across a wide swath of the affected region.
Disasters always pose a test for the communist government, whose mandate rests heavily on maintaining order, delivering economic growth, and providing relief in emergencies.
If China’s leaders are able to successfully show that they can overcome this latest crisis, it will allow them bragging rights with the Olympics around the corner, said Adam Segal, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“They will use this as a kind of symbol, a demonstration that they can mobilize and respond to tragedies and show a government that is competent and in control,” he said.
China has not always responded well to crises. Tens of millions of people starved in the famine created by the disastrous Great Leap Forward of the 1950s. The 1976 quake in the city of Tangshan was the most devastating in modern history, killing at least 240,000 — although some other reports say as many as 655,000 perished.
As economic growth raised expectations for better government, the leadership has poured resources into disaster relief.