China's other face

Premier Wen's compassion after the quake may represent a new type of leadership.

Is he the face of a new China? Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, a bespectacled former geologist, was quick to show on-the-scene compassion following the May 12 giant earthquake in Sichuan, even shouting to one trapped student: "This is Grandpa Wen Jiabao, hang on child, we will rescue you!"

His hands-on control of the rescue effort in the earthquake area – and openness to foreign recovery experts – stands in contrast to the pitiless response of Burma's junta to that country's May 2 cyclone.

Both disasters left tens of thousands dead, but Burma's secluded leader, Gen. Than Shwe, hasn't even taken a call from the UN secretary-general, let alone allow foreign aid agencies to work directly with millions of survivors and stave off a possible post-cyclone tragedy.

Even for China's Communist Party, Mr. Wen's empathic reaction to the quake is unusual. At first, party officials instinctively imposed media controls and blocked foreign reporters from reaching Sichuan. But as the scale of the 7.9 magnitude temblor became known – and perhaps because it was not man-made – even state-run media broke the rules of presenting only "positive" stories.

Wen's own instincts may have played a role in the party's turnaround in being open, compassionate, and effective in its response.

During the 1989 pro-democracy protests, Wen stood beside a reformist premier, Zhao Ziyang, who pleaded with students to leave Tiananmen Square before a military crackdown and even wept over the pending tragedy. And during floods in 1998, Wen again showed leadership in his response. Last winter, when snow halted train travel and left millions of Chinese stranded during holidays, he wielded a bullhorn at the stations, apologizing for government ineptitude and pushing solutions.

Chinese leaders have little choice but to learn from past mistakes. Being unelected, their hold on power is tenuous. Since 2003, a new leadership has jettisoned a quarter-century-long policy of pell-mell economic growth and is trying to implement a policy of "putting people first."

It isn't easy for them. Until three years ago, death tallies from disasters were deemed to be state secrets. But after being faced with the SARS epidemic and bird-flu threat in recent years, the party learned that hiding bad news can backfire. And in March, the party at first tried to go easy on Tibetan protesters but ultimately imposed a ruthless crackdown.

In the run-up to the Olympics that start in Beijing Aug. 8, China's leaders could be struggling to find a new identity that goes beyond knee-jerk nationalism and raw power. A wealthier China with better-educated people doesn't need as much top-down control. People in rural areas are demanding better local leadership – one reason that a prime minister needs to take charge in a tragedy. Keeping China cohesive and stable even as it quickly changes and relies more on the outside world will take new skills among its leaders.

Wen's public example of compassion may be a small part of that shift. He has been dubbed "the people's premier." His actions have helped impel millions of Chinese to take civic action and assist the earthquake survivors, especially orphans. If this is the new China, the world can only applaud it.

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