In an unexpected silver lining to the tragic Sichuan earthquake, China's international image has enjoyed dramatic improvement over the past two weeks as people around the world react with sympathy for the victims and admiration for Beijing's immediate response.But the turnaround remains fragile, say Chinese and foreign scholars. It is especially susceptible to a retreat by the government from the very policy that has earned it so much kudos: press freedom.
"The new image is quite vulnerable," says Wenran Jiang, a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. "The honeymoon won't last long because the Chinese people themselves will start asking questions" about embarrassing issues such as the number of schools that collapsed. "You can't rule out criticism mounting and the government becoming defensive."
The year 2008, when the Olympic Games were to give Beijing a chance to show itself at its best, began badly for the authorities. The crackdown in Tibet behind a veil of secrecy, the controversy surrounding the Olympic torch relay, and a barrage of criticism from foreign activists further sullied an image already dented by food and other safety scandals.
The recent earthquake, thought to have cost upwards of 80,000 lives, and the government's quick and forceful response, cast China in a new light, however.
"The major change was in the government's attitude to the foreign press," allowing reporters free access to the disaster zone, says Gong Wenxiang, head of the journalism school at Peking University. "When you tell stories about how people feel, you get sympathy ... because it shows you share values. This was a demonstration of universal values, treating human life as the No. 1 priority."
The earthquake "has definitely changed the entire dynamics" of China's relations with the rest of the world, says Prof. Jiang. "I've never seen such a turnaround in a government's image in such a short space of time.
"People see China less as a menacing superpower and more as a fragile emerging country with a lot of internal issues and crises to handle," he suggests.
The Chinese government clearly benefited in many people's eyes from the contrast between the manner in which it dealt with the Sichuan earthquake and the way the authorities in neighboring Burma (Myanmar) dragged their heels in the wake of the cyclone that has left an estimated 130,000 dead or missing.
Beijing's rapid response was encapsulated by the hands-on efforts of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who flew with other government officials to Sichuan Province within two hours of the quake. Television crews followed him for the next several days directing rescue efforts, shouting encouragement to buried survivors, and comforting bereaved parents.
Mr. Wen made his second trip to the quake zone last week, where pressing problems remain: A strong aftershock on Sunday killed at least eight people, and looming storms heightened fears that rivers and reservoirs clogged by landslides and quake debris could flood.
Faced with these immediate dangers, as well as the long-term issue of resettlement and reconstruction for five million homeless, Beijing is currently under less pressure for its human rights record and its friendship with Sudan from international critics, who appear to have declared a cease-fire since the quake.
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."
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.
"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.