The central government has, by all accounts, responded well to the disaster wrought by the Sichuan earthquake. Rendered swiftly and effectively, its assistance addressed not only the immediate needs of quake victims, but the emotions of a shocked country.
Premier Wen Jiabao has been at the forefront of a kinder, gentler approach forged during a difficult year. After the quake, he was shown poring over maps of disaster-hit areas and walking through rubble-strewn streets, giving encouragement to dazed survivors. This wasn’t just a PR set-piece, and the people felt it.
China’s leaders could do with the goodwill. The first half of 2008 was supposed to be a smooth, trouble-free run-up to the Olympics. Instead, Beijing has faced crippling snowstorms, unrest in Tibet and now a devastating earthquake – and these are just the headline events. The government must also deal with mounting public concern over rising consumer prices, as well as all the traditional economic and social bugbears.
The rescue efforts in Sichuan have allowed China’s leadership to bolster its reputation in the eyes of the public. Indeed, the swift response to the earthquake marks a welcome change from the dithering that undermined initial relief efforts during the snowstorms that paralyzed much of the country early this year.
Beijing has also made the most of the opportunity to blood its next generation of leaders and allow them to establish a presence in the public consciousness.
During the rescue efforts, Wen was joined by Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the duo widely tipped to replace the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao leadership team in 2012. Xi and Li were only appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee in October, and although they kept a low profile in Sichuan compared with Hu and Wen, their presence was no doubt calculated to increase their visibility.
However, it would be naïve to suggest that all will be fine from here on out. As the initial shock of the quake wears off, the government will face hard questions about the many collapsed schools and other public buildings. There have already been suggestions that corrupt building practices may have led to preventable deaths.
Beijing’s reaction to the quake has been admirable so far, but the way it deals with quake-related fallout and investigations will be a much stronger indicator of its future approach. The earthquake cleanup will end, but the problem of governing China will not go away.