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China enjoys rare moment of global support

The country won long-sought international sympathy for its tragic earthquake and rapid government response.

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At the heart of the change in attitudes, however, were the human stories that reporters were free to tell about the tribulations of the earthquake victims. "This kind of openness was indispensable if the government wanted people to mobilize," says Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. "It represents great progress."

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Whether the new press policy will last long, however, Prof. Shi is less sure. "This approach has lots of benefits, but to what degree these lessons will be applied to future situations will depend on the concrete circumstances," he says.

State control of the press is still strong and the ruling Communist Party's publicity department, which sets the news agenda for Chinese media, "will not recede into the shadows overnight," says David Bandurski, a scholar at Hong Kong University's China Media Program.

"Any lasting change in media policy comes from a change in the political system, what we call political reform," agrees Prof. Gong. "We have not yet seen any fundamental change."

At the same time, the earthquake and its immediate consequences lent themselves to sympathetic press coverage; other issues might not serve government purposes quite so well.

"It will depend on the coverage," says Chen Weixing, a professor at China Communications University in Beijing. "Does it encourage the government, or will it be critical?

"If the international media encourages the government in a positive way," he believes, the experiment with greater openness "will continue. But if not, the government will have less courage, and it will take a more prudent approach."

Reporting on criticisms of the government is likely to broaden in the foreign and Chinese media. It has already begun with articles asking why so many schools collapsed and with Internet posts alleging corruption in the use of relief funds.

It is hard to see how the government will escape criticism, since its management of the earthquake's aftermath is unlikely to be problem-free, points out Shawn Shieh, a professor of politics at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"Now the world is coming together in support of China," but the world also united in sympathy for the US in the wake of 9/11 and hurricane Katrina, he points out. "The way we handled the aftermath of those crises did not get us much support from most of the rest of the world."

Gong believes the government "has done quite well in turning a crisis into an opportunity. High-level decisionmakers ... must be very pleased with what they have already done to make China a better country in the eyes of those who don't quite like China."

But "many journalists will turn from their initial sympathetic and kind reporting to ask questions about all the problems.... It could easily turn into another round of hostility," says Jiang.