Shaken and stirred

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 13/05/08):

China’s Year of the Earth 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 on Monday afternoon is but the latest rollercoaster crisis to rock the Communist 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 August games have been shamelessly commandeered as a matchless platform on which to celebrate a national coming of age – or as former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten puts it, “the country’s re-emergence as a great global power”.

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 behaviour 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 (they accused him of suicide bombing among other crimes), alienated friends and foes alike.

The mistake has since been recognised 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 similar vein, China is organising an international conference on Darfur in Beijing in June, apparently intended to defuse western criticism of its collaboration with Sudan’s government.

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 the modernising technocrat, President Hu Jintao, replaced the old-school apparatchik, Jiang Zemin.

Though still a conservative figure in many ways, Hu’s swift reaction to and personal involvement in the earthquake 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 to Sichuan while simultaneously mobilising the army.

George Bush’s Hurricane Katrina debacle, Vladimir Putin’s Kursk submarine disgrace, and the Burmese junta’s ongoing, reckless incompetence have provided helpful lessons on how not to do disasters. China’s leaders will doubtless 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 criticised 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 aftershocks, political and social, that may follow.

“The government is responding very quickly, very promptly despite the difficult wet conditions,” a Chinese official said today. “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. Everyone is united right now.”

But the official admitted that awkward questions were sure to follow, once survivors had been found and the dust settled. One focus of attention will be why so many public buildings, especially schools packed with pupils, collapsed so utterly – and whether, as in recent earthquake disasters in Iran and Turkey, inadequate or corrupt building practices were partly responsible. Medical teams were also very aware of the post-quake dangers posed by disease and exposure for thousands of homeless people, the official said.

International rows apart, the Year of the Earth Rat has already seen rising social strains in China over inflated food and energy prices, corrupt land grabs, ethnic differences, and falling export demand. The Sichuan earthquake, and its long-term implications for reconstruction, compensation and social cohesion, is the latest blow.

“They (the government) have started well but it could get very difficult for them,” an Asian diplomat said. “They are an authoritarian government, they have not been elected by the people. They will be judged by how they handle the situation. It will be a big test.”